Declaring in a speech Monday to the American Bar Association that “widespread incarceration at the federal, state, and local levels is both ineffective and unsustainable”, Attorney General Eric Holder announced a number of policy directives aimed at winding down the four decades old “War on Drugs” which has resulted in the incarceration of millions of Americans for non-violent drug offenses. This should be a clarion call to social workers and everyone who value the lives and aspirations of all Americans to get behind this effort to amend criminal justice policies that have made the United States the most prolific incarcerator of its citizens in the world.
President Richard Nixon was the first to coin the term “War on Drugs,” using it during his initial campaign for the presidency in 1968. It was a sub-text of the broader war on crime and the push for “law and order” in a society that seemed to be succumbing to a hippie culture. Many people in the country were stunned by riots that broke out in urban cities across the country in the wake of the shooting death of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Drugs, much like terror in the 1990s, became the faceless enemy that had to be conquered.
The most conspicuous salvo fired in the nascent war on drugs was the draconian New York state drug laws signed by Gov. Nelson A. Rockefeller in 1973. These laws carried such stiff penalties for possession and sale of controlled substances that it was thought no one in their right mind would risk so many years in prison for selling or using drugs. The penalty for selling two ounces of heroin, cocaine, or marijuana or possessing four ounces of either was 15 years to life in prison. Obviously, this reasoning proved false as people continued to possess and sell illegal drugs. As New York state prison began rapidly filling, other states began emulating its tough drug laws.
Politicians sought to gain political advantage by appearing to be tougher on crime than their opponents, calling for stiffer sentences and reduced probation and parole. Many states began to institute determinate sentencing policies removing discretion from judges and putting it in the hands of prosecutors. Mandatory minimum sentencing reach its zenith in 1994 when California passed “Three Strikes and You’re Out” requiring a minimum sentence of 25 years for a third felony.
All of this led to accelerated prison construction and massive incarceration. Until 1972, US prison rates were on par with those of Europe and had been stable for decades at around 200,000. Prison and jail rates soared after Nixon’s declaration of the “War on Drugs”, and then soared again as President Ronald Reagan re-declared the drug war in 1980. The prison and jail population surpassed the 2 million mark in 2002. Now, more than 7 million Americans are under some form of supervision today.
So AG Holder’s pronouncements in San Francisco Monday were music to the ears of anti-incarceration advocates who have been fighting for decades to reduce penalties for drugs. But, it is just the beginning. Congress will have to act on some of the policy prescriptions. But as states’ budgets continue to contract, governors and legislatures are beginning to rethink criminal justice policies. There are promising strategies being employed like the Justice Reinvestment Initiative funded by the Bureau of Justice Assistance—a data-driven approach to reduce expenditures for criminal justice and corrections and use the savings to fund community-based strategies to reduce criminal activities and recidivism such as prison-diversion programs, substance abuse treatment, and prevention-oriented policing strategies.
There are many reasons why the War on Drugs lasted as long as it has. A lot of people made a lot of money locking up and warehousing human beings. Private corrections corporations are trading on Wall Street. Rural towns and communities replaced shuttered factories with prisons and jails as a mean to create employment and maintain economic viability. But the time has come to end the War on Drugs and free thousands of Americans needlessly wasting away behind bars. Kudos to the Obama Administration making this first step in the right direction. But we cannot celebrate prematurely. Social workers and other advocates must remain as vigilant and vocal as we have been in the past. There may be some hope and change before President Obama leaves office.
Written by Dr. Charles E. Lewis Jr.
President of The Congressional Research Institute for Social Work and Policy
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