An Effect of Mass Incarceration

It is no surprise that the United States has a major issue with the incarceration of its people. In fact, the U.S. incarcerates more people, per capita, than any other country in the world, 714 in 100,000 people, or about 3.5 for every 500.

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We lock up more than 4 times the people than the United Kingdom [1]. When considering what leads people to prison two main components come to mind: crime and drugs. Crime is the most diverse and largest contributing factor. According to Brookings “Violent crimes account for nearly half the prison population at any given time; and drug crimes only one fifth. But drug crimes account for more of the total number of admissions in recent years? almost one third (31 percent), while violent crimes account for one quarter” [2]. One would think if the US was a dangerous country then its high incarceration rates would be logically explained. But the US doesn’t rank in the top most dangerous countries, and it is considered safe to travel in and out of. According to the United States government travel bans have been issued in the following countries for 2018: Libya, South Sudan, Mali, Somalia, Iran and Afghanistan [3]. The United States outranks every dangerous country when it comes to the number of people it has incarcerated.

Although violent crimes are the main contributor to prison populations in the U.S. drug-related crimes have seen an increase in the likelihood of receiving long-term jail time. 1 in 5 people incarcerated are locked up for non-violent drug-related crimes. At first glance, this statistic seems reasonable but after quick consideration, its determined unfair for non-violent offenders to make up such a large portion of the prison population. Drug offenses and weapon offenses in the US carry the same length for a prison sentence. It is obvious there are many factors other than crime and drugs that play into the mass incarceration epidemic we are experiencing. For the scope of this paper, the war on drugs affiliation with mass incarceration and the consequences of these actions is going to be examined. The war on drugs was predetermined to restrict left-wing and minority voters and has since evolved into an era where underprivileged minorities are given no justice within our system. This war has been waged in predominately poor black neighborhoods for the last 40 years; incarcerating non-violent offenders in mass, contributing to the growing numbers of people being placed behind bars.

The history of drugs in the United States dates back well before the 1890s where record of Native Americans using cocoa leaves in the mid-1500s as a hallucinogen. Tobacco leaves then show being introduced and widespread by the end of the 16th century, although its speculated Native Americans used tobacco many years before that. As tobacco was released so was rum making its appearance in historical handbooks it was very popular amongst the sailors. In the 1890s cocaine in syringe form was available for purchase through the Sears catalog. It was highly praised for being a miracle drug and was used to treat all sorts of sicknesses including headaches, muscle aches, and alcohol/morphine addictions. The prohibition of alcohol began shortly after in 1919 but was resolved in 1933. In 1937 the Marijuana Tax Act was passed, this act instilled a tax on cannabis, hemp and marijuana products. This tax act did not decriminalize the substance, but instead took the first steps in criminalizing it. Between 1960 and 1970 drug use, especially the use of marijuana increased among young middle-class white people especially those on college campuses. It wasn’t until the 70’s that Richard Nixon brought drugs back to the forefront of conversation, claiming it as ‘public enemy number one.’ What Nixon established in his years of presidency went on to affect how thousands of people have been wrongly pursued and incriminated in our incarcerations system.

The War on Drugs was a phrase constructed by Nixon during his presidency in the 1970s. He first signed the Controlled Substance Act (CSA) which categorized drugs into five schedules. Schedule I being the highest risk drugs which included marijuana, LSD, heroin, and MDMA. And schedule V being the “safer” drugs which included cold medicine and codeine. It should be noted that by current standards codeine is classified as an opiate, a narcotic resembling opium which is commonly found in prescription painkillers. It is also noted that some behind-the-counter cough medicines are now considered Schedule V drugs due to the codeine they contain. A drug that has been proven to be highly addictive and comes with a warning label to take with caution. We currently as a society face a separate, but also serious, drug epidemic in regards to prescription opiates, but that’s a conversation for another time.

In 1971 Nixon officially declared the War on Drugs, increasing federal funding for drug control agencies, and proposing mandatory prison sentencing for specific drugs.  In 1973 Nixon created the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) signing in 1,470 DEA agents with a $75-million-dollar budget. Currently today we have approximately 5,000 DEA agents with a $2.03-million-dollar budget. Years after his presidency Nixon’s Domestic Policy Chief John Ehrlichman spoke out about the war on drugs stating:

We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin. And then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities,” Ehrlichman said. “We could arrest their leaders. raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.

It seems from the beginning that Nixon had ulterior motives when he declared the war on drugs. He knew that by strategically categorizing marijuana as one of the most dangerous drugs that he could successfully wage wars in communities that used it. And although the truth of the matter is that people across all demographics use drugs equally. According to a drug policy website “Higher arrest and incarceration rates for these communities are not reflective of increased prevalence of drug use, but rather of law enforcement’s focus on urban areas, lower income communities and communities of color” (        ). Nixon was able to wage his war on drugs in poor communities where he didn’t have many supporters. If he could incarcerate people and strip them of their rights, then they couldn’t oppose him during the next presidential election. Which is exactly what happened, leading him to his second presidential victory. In 1974 Nixon willingly resigned after being faced with backlash and possible impeachment due to serious ties with the Watergate scandal. Years after Nixon’s presidency incarceration rates continued to climb from 100 in 100,000 people to 714 in 100,000 people. It is clear that Nixon was the catalyst for this new era, and since his presidency not much has been done to change it.

Following Nixon’s term, Jimmy Carter was open to the public about his views on drugs and supported decriminalization of marijuana in small amounts. He believed the drug laws that were put in place were too strict and needed to be changed. He also believed in a full program of treatments for people suffering from addiction. These views were thought to have helped him win the presidency. Carter stated, “We should encourage local police to give priority to violent crimes- assault, robbery, rape, muggings, murders. When I was Governor of Georgia, we stopped treating alcoholism as a crime to provide increased medical help to alcoholics and to free our police and courts to concentrate on violent crimes” (Carter). Carters term lasted four years and when up for re-election he lost to competitor Ronald Reagan.

When Reagan took office in 1981 he quickly reinforced and expanded Nixon’s original war on drugs and the policies that came along with them. His wife Nancy successfully launched the “Just Say No” campaign which was focused on teaching young children to say no to drugs. She toured the country making speeches and visiting rehabilitation centers. It has since been declared “D.A.R.E. ?  the ubiquitous anti-drug campaign of the 1980s and 1990s ?  has come a long way since the days of “just say no.” Launched in 1983 to explicitly tackle illegal drug use with a strict focus on the negative consequences of substance abuse, the D.A.R.E. program now focuses on developing life skills and giving kids the tools to make responsible decisions” (DARE). Over the course of the presidency, Nancy was known to have a large influence over her husband. Congress passed the Anti-Drug Use Act which established mandatory prison time for certain drugs. These mandatory sentences had underlying racial consequences; crack cocaine used predominately by black people held a longer sentence than powder cocaine, which was predominately used by white people. This in combination with the previous policies created an even larger disadvantage toward this select group of people.

Over the next few presidencies, drug laws and policies remained mostly unchanged. The number of people incarcerated each year continued to increase, and the war on drugs continued to be waged in communities of color. Racial inequalities can be seen at all stages in the justice system, with increased chances of being stopped and searched, arrested, convicted, and pinned with the consequences of having a criminal record. Included below is a table from a drug use website that helps show the disproportionality drug laws have on black, white and Latino communities. It can be seen that more black and Latino people are incarcerated for drug-related offenses than white people, even though white people hold a larger overall population. This means that black people are magnitudes more likely to go to prison for drug-related charges, even though drug use is common among all races. It is now easy to see the systems that have been put in place that have gotten the U.S. to where it is now. Nixon’s installation of the policies on the war on drugs and Reagans say no to drug campaign influenced our criminal system to be what it is today, rigged and advantageous for a select few people.

At every stage of the criminal justice system minorities are subjected to difficulties within it. More people of color are stopped, searched and incarcerated. Research shows that people of color are more likely to be convicted versus their white counterpart. According to The Sentencing Project:

Harsh drug laws are clearly an important factor in the persistent racial and ethnic disparities observed in state prisons. For drug crimes, disparities are especially severe, due largely to the fact that blacks are nearly four times as likely as whites to be arrested for drug offenses and 2.5 times as likely to be arrested for drug possession.This is despite the evidence that whites and blacks use drugs at roughly the same rate. From 1995 to 2005, African Americans comprised approximately 13 percent of drug users but 36% of drug arrests and 46% of those convicted for drug offenses.

Within the prison system, the inequality is only rooted further. People of color continue to be subjected to racial inequality even after they’ve been sentenced. In 2010 the law distinguishing unfair sentencing between crack and powder cocaine was fixed, and the legalization of marijuana has begun on the state level, with 10 total states fully legalizing recreational marijuana. With the recent loosening of drug laws, the release of people incarcerated for non-violent drug-related crimes has the opportunity to have their sentences modified, with some having the eligibility of possible release.

Not allowing harsh criminal reprimand for drug possession and the elimination of mandatory drug sentencing are key ways to reduce the number of people incarcerated for drug-related offenses. If drugs became legal on a federal level and resources were instead used to treat drug addiction, then people who are suffering can get the help they need, and non-violent offenders can stay out of prison. If the war on drugs is removed from the neighborhoods that it has been waged in, then law enforcement could be used more efficiently and directed in ways that would benefit the community. In the time that Colorado and Washington have legalized marijuana, they have not seen an increase in violent crimes or traffic violations. And have instead seen a decrease in the numbers of users of heroin and cocaine. In 2017 the tax money that had accumulated from the sale of marijuana in Colorado exceed $115 million dollars. $41 million went to education and public health, $32 million went to substance abuse, mental health and use-prevention efforts. $16 million went to the construction of affordable housing and local construction. $3 million went to law enforcement, transportation and public safety. $5.9 million went to combat illegal markets.

In 2001 the country of Portugal decriminalized all types of drugs after years of a failed attempt on the war on drugs. The Portuguese government initially followed suit to the US, using extreme measures of incarceration but gave up after nearly 1% of its people were addicted to heroin and the drug-related death due to AIDS was at an all-time high. Since the decriminalization of drugs Portugal has not fallen into a drug crisis, and after the first initial increase of users, they started to see a decrease as time went on. They have seen a decrease in users across all age groups and an even larger decrease in the number of drug-induced deaths. Portugal also saw a small reduction in the number of people infected with HIV.

There are many factors that have been put in place making the system what is it today. But the criminal system is a complicated machine, and many things contribute to the mass incarceration of our people.

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