In 1986, the year the Anti-Drug Abuse Act was signed into law, 800 thousand people were incarcerated in the United States; today that number is 2.3 million. The act was intended to target high-profile drug traffickers. Instead, enforcement has focused on street-level dealers and end users. The zero-tolerance penal system the act established has failed to curtail both drug use and distribution in the United States.
The War on Drugs arose in the Nixon era. Soldiers were returning from the Vietnam War addicted to heroin. Addicts used openly in parks in New York, Boston, and other large cities. Then, the inner-city crack epidemic exploded in the 1980s. Lawmakers reason that tough mandatory minimum punishment of drug use would deter other crimes. Human Rights Watch concludes, however, that the War on Drugs has actually increased crime rates in poor urban communities because social and economic advancement opportunity doesn’t exist for former convicts.
Mandatory minimums deny judges the discretion of holistically reviewing cases and making tailored decisions. Judges are forced to detain individuals who should be placed in alternative rehabilitation programs.
The social collateral damage is massive. Half of the prison population in the U.S. are serving time for crimes related to drug prohibition. 1.15 million non-violent drug offenders could be learning to serve their communities and families more efficiently and productively. The U.S. is the only western nation state that sentences juveniles to life in prison without the option of parole. Communities are robbed of future change-makers. Mass incarceration of non-violent persons limits the quality of individuals’ lives, destroys families, and allocates limited financial resources to programs that demonstrate failure.
The tripling of the prison population in the last 25 years has financially strained both states and federal prisons. Overcrowding endangers both prisoners and prison staff. Hence, the Supreme Court ordered California to decrease its prison population by close to 40,000 over the next two years, as a number penitentiaries have been operating at 200% capacity rates. While authorities resist releasing prisoners, it has become the only feasible short-term solution to protect the human rights of those incarcerated.
Prison privatization, not meaningful drug policy reform, has become the predominant long-term government solution. Private industry competition has transformed a public safety issue into a profit maximizing scheme. Industry leaders such as the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) and Wackenhut Corrections Corporation (WCC) wreak the financial benefits of an unjust system. To protect profits, these companies donate to organizations that lobby in favor of harsh sentences for non-violent drug offenders. And they’re winning. The number of federal inmates in private prisons had increased by 784% since 1999 .
Overcrowding has reached a precipice, but alternative policy solutions exist. Unlocking Justice, a documentary released by the Sentencing Project, details three solutions to substitute detention:
Looking to other countries, decriminalized drug use in Portugal, Switzerland, and the Netherlands has demonstrated great success. In Switzerland, decriminalization allows users to be more forthright about their drug use and addiction. They can now be monitored and assisted to prevent death, disease, and new addiction.
Each country that has decriminalized drugs has seen lower HIV/AIDS incidences, fewer prisoners, reduced government expenditure on prisons, and a sharp decrease in crime rates. Decriminalized systems focus enforcement on the supply and provide support, rather than harsh punishment, for users.
Authoritarian punishment has done little to debilitate the drug economy, and innocent lives are being wasted as a result. Some lawmakers have begun to realize this. Medical marijuana has been legalized by 16 states. There are many advocate groups working hard for drug policy reform: the Sentencing Project, the Drug Policy Alliance, Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM), the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), Human Rights Watch, Students for Sensible Drug Policy, the Marijuana Policy Project, the International Drug Policy Consortium, and many others. Drug policy reform must occur in the U.S. to ensure that human rights and racial equality are advanced.
By: Amanda Malak
Social Awares Journalist
Note: Full references and resources available upon request