America’s Mass Incarceration Problem
In February of 2018, President Donald Trump released the Trump Administration’s fiscal budget for 2019. The budget was predictably set on what President Trump had mentioned what he found most important; there was a substantial increase in defense spending, ICE and border control, and infrastructure, as well as a decrease in Medicare and Environmental Protection. One of his more notable budget increases stands out, however: an increase in programs that are often associated with the infamous, ongoing “War on Drugs”. The Drug Enforcement Administration, or DEA, will receive a $400 Million increase in taxpayer money to investigate and arrest drug users. The Trump Administration will also spend $50 Million to run an anti-drug-use media campaign. The Administration also provides $5 Million for Interagency Crime and Drug Enforcement, or OCDETF, which further enforces the stoppage of drug trafficking and drug abusers.
Of course, among the massive increases in taxpayer money dedicated to stopping nonviolent drug users, the Administration also cuts $20 Million to a program called the Second Chance Act, or SCA, which supports former prison inmates to get back on their feet and become productive members of their society after their sentence.
This is a worrisome outlook for the American epidemic of mass incarceration; more specifically, the mass incarceration of citizens who use drugs. As Lauren-Brooke Eisen and Inimai Chettiar, two members of the Brennan Center Justice Program, wrote in TIME: “With 2.2 million people in prison, mass incarceration is the greatest moral and racial injustice of our time.” According to a summary from pewtrusts.org, prisoners who were held for a state violation were behind bars for just over two years, while federal drug offenders are held for an average of five years. The U.S. currently spends about $80 Billion per year on the incarceration of 25 percent of the world’s inmates, according to Linda Mancillas, author of Presidents and Mass Incarceration. The harsh sentencing and authoritarian policies are ruining lives of people who could use a second chance. Why do drug users–hell, even some that would be considered drug abusers–receive life-altering sentences just a tier below murderers, rapists, and frauds? Why does the U.S. decide to spend billions of taxpayer money to arrest and punish nonviolent users of drugs such as marijuana? Surely, our nation can spend our money much more efficiently than to continue the mass incarceration of citizens who haven’t critically harmed the lives of others.
So when did the mass incarceration of drug users begin? Much of this can be dated back to the Reagan era. In 1986, Ronald Reagan passed the Anti-Drug Abuse Act, which enforced mandatory minimum sentences for the use of illegal drugs, including marijuana. The legislation costed approximately $1.7 Billion to further crack down on drug trafficking and use. Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, considered the escalation of the “War on Drugs” a racist program that was placed to target low-income black citizens and other people of color, claiming that most white people were unaware of the mayhem the program caused in black communities.
As Alexander writes: “To put the matter starkly: The current system of control permanently locks a huge percentage of the African American cornmunity out of the mainstream society and economy. The system operates through our criminal justice institutions, but it functions more like a caste system than a system of crime control.” (p. 14) The War on Drugs, arguably, was a continuation of institutional and legislative racism, focusing on poor black communities and incriminating thousands of people of color.
Since Reagan’s time, billions of dollars have been poured into searching for drug-related crime, which could have been spent on much more efficient, useful programs: education, science, healthcare reform, lowering pollution, for example. And with the recent budget report, it’s clear that there is no stopping the past three decades of the War on Drugs. With “three-strike” laws, xenophobia based on a fear of drug crime and abuse, and a culture based on fear rather than anecdotal evidence, the War on Drugs continues to tear down low-income households and seeks to incarcerate millions of people who deserve rehabilitation rather than an ineffective punishment.
What would be a more effective alternative to jailing prisoners who dealt with illicit drug use? Drug treatment and rehabilitation. A study finds that diverting offenders to drug rehabilitation programs generates positive social benefits and saves the U.S. billions in tax dollars. The study states that if 40 percent of addicted offenders received treatment instead of time in jail, the criminal justice system would save $12.9 Billion dollars annually. It costs far too much–not only in taxpayer money, but in social externalities–to keep a drug user detained for years rather than provide proper treatment and rehabilitation. Drug offenders kept in jail are not going to fix their ways by staying in jail. Many can find themselves in court again not long after their sentence is finished. By providing proper rehabilitation and drug treatment, the U.S. would save billions and give drug offenders another opportunity to be positive members of our society.
Whether the U.S. will change its historically-harsh stance on drug abuse in the near future is up in the air. For now, it appears rough: the Trump administration, as mentioned before, is not swaying from their stance on drug abuse, giving billions to programs that investigate and arrest drug users and spending more on anti-drug advertisements. However, our future may have a different perspective on our mass incarceration epidemic. In March of 2018, Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez stated on Twitter that she supports the efforts to reduce the prison population by up to 50%, and claimed that the War on Drugs was a failure. The American drug abuse epidemic is a problem, no doubt; if anything, however, it shows that mass incarceration is not only inefficient, but it is a huge waste of tax revenue, and a failed program that has roots in racism and systemic efforts to undermine minorities.