President Obama recently began a push for criminal justice reform by granting clemency last week to 46 hand-chosen non-violent low-level drug offenders serving extraordinarily long sentences, and by becoming the first U.S. president to visit a federal prison during last Thursday’s trip to the El Reno Correctional Institution in Oklahoma.
“When [these inmates] describe their youth, these are young people who made mistakes that aren’t that different from the mistakes I made, and the mistakes that a lot of you guys made. The difference is that they did not have the kind of support structures, the second chances, the resources that would allow them to survive those mistakes,” said President Obama according to The Wall Street Journal.
Obama’s emerging approach on low-level drug offenders is a welcome deviation from the big government policies that he has largely pursued under his presidency. However, the brave first step he’s taking in unwinding a broader War on Drugs that has warped the U.S. criminal justice system by attempting to use the threat of jail to impose healthcare best practices is a baby step at best. The Atlantic estimates that 95,265 non-violent drug inmates are currently languishing in federal prisons, and a vast array of federal War on Drugs policies remain in place, meaning that number is still set to climb over time. Also, U.S. states continue to imprison Americans under harsh state-level drug laws that have already impacted countless inmates. The above-embedded Truth in Media Consider This video puts into perspective some facts about the incarceration of non-violent offenders under the War on Drugs.
Some inmates rot away in cells on marijuana charges while Americans in other states freely consume commercially-produced edible cannabis products, exposing a rising contradiction in U.S. law as marijuana prohibition begins to face repeal in a growing number of states.
The criminalization of victimless activity such as drug use has empowered law enforcement officers to launch arbitrary criminal investigations against virtually anyone during any traffic stop or police encounter, rather than on the basis of reports by victims, changing the nature of the relationship between police and citizens. Now, some citizens fear that, if they call the police to report a crime, they too could become a suspect in a criminal investigation. The days of Andy Griffith are a thing of the past, as armor-clad officers now routinely batter down Americans’ doors in the middle of the night in sometimes-unannounced, guns-drawn raids.
African-Americans and Latinos are targeted at disproportionate levels under arbitrarily-enforced War on Drugs policies. Lost voting rights by drug felons represent significant levels of voter disenfranchisement, particularly among demographic groups like African American males who are typically subjected to profiling.
Meanwhile, the War on Drugs has failed at its goal of improving U.S. health outcomes. Addicts are more likely to hide their addictions to avoid incarceration. Witnesses to drug overdoses sometimes fail to call emergency services out of fear of prosecution by law enforcement, leading to needless fatalities. Drug cartels, fat with profits from providing illegal drugs to addicts, use their funds to purchase advanced weapons with which to terrorize Americans. Terrorist organizations use prohibition’s drug profits to finance their attacks on the U.S. and other nations.
President Obama has started a crucial conversation on the next steps that should be taken in unwinding an over-reaching federal War on Drugs. Restoring voting rights to non-violent felons, reforming sentencing guidelines, and letting states relax marijuana prohibition laws are all important policy moves. That said, these policies alone will not significantly transform a status quo where US drug laws now have their own lobbyists from the law enforcement and private prison industries who invest in politicians’ campaigns in an effort to obtain lucrative federal and state contracts.
Instead of discussing whether non-violent inmates are spending too long in jail for healthcare mistakes made with drugs, America should confront the broader issue of whether or not we should be incarcerating people for victimless “crimes” in the first place, at both the state and federal levels. While drug addiction is a serious issue that impacts countless families, it is a healthcare issue, and state and federal law enforcement resources are needed right now to tackle the very real violent and property crime threats that confront Americans.
History will remember the War on Drugs as a human rights disaster. Politicians in the future will pretend they never supported it. It is time to roll up our sleeves and begin the hard work of unwinding these laws nationwide on the state and federal levels.