The United States has the highest imprisonment rate in the world, surpassing that of repressive countries like Russia and China.
Ours is more than seven times the rate of Europe or Canada. With 5 percent of the world’s population, we have 25 percent of its prisoners. Hardly a mark for a democracy to be proud of.
In the 25 years since the Reagan administration’s Anti-Drug Abuse Act (1986), the U.S. penal population has risen from about 300,000 to more than 2 million. There were 41,000 drug offenders in 1985, but that has increased to 500,000 by 2010 (Wiki-pedia). Drug offenses account for half of this drastic rise in imprisonment.
As Michelle Alexander reports in her well-researched and heavily praised book, “The New Jim Crow,” the drug war is mostly a war on African-Americans, particularly young black men, even though it is not explicitly conceived as such.
“Although the majority of illegal drug users and dealers are white, three-fourths of all people imprisoned for drug offenses have been black or Latino,” she wrote.
Human Rights Watch reported that in seven states, African-Americans were 80 percent to 90 percent of imprisoned drug offenders, and in 15 states, they were imprisoned for drug offenses at rates up to 57 times that of white men.
Also, white youths were actually the most likely to be guilty of drug possession and sales.
The drug war could have been justifiably waged in white suburbs or on college campuses, where both using and selling are at least as large. But these groups have too much influence to allow their lives to be so upset and their being turned into felons.
As Alexander notes, “African-Americans – particularly in the poorest neighborhoods – are subjected to tactics and practices that would result in public outrage and scandal if committed in middle-class white neighborhoods.”
But ghetto arrests help police keep up their numbers.
The Fourth Amendment is supposed to guarantee Americans “to be secure in their persons, houses, papers and effects against unreasonable searches” except on “probable cause” of a carefully designed warrant. However, today, police and the Drug Enforcement Agency routinely violate this protection.
In New York, in the more segregated areas, police, in recent years, have stopped hundreds of thousands of people on the vague claim that they might have drugs or a gun, up to 85 percent of them African-Americans, rarely finding a gun or drugs.
When they see the police, young black men routinely raise their hands and shirt to be searched. This also happens in Washington, D.C., Philadelphia and other American cities.
The DEA teaches local police to use minor traffic violations (ones that we all make!) as pretexts to search cars, especially those “driving while black,” and to intimidate drivers into allowing searches. Most people may not know that officers need “probable cause” for a search, and with a well-armed officer standing over you, it’s hard to have rights. At least 95 percent of traffic stops yield no drugs.
The crack-cocaine hysteria of the 1980s and the Reagan and George H.W. Bush tactics created an image of the black, violent criminal (the Willy Horton campaign ad). Most drug offenses are nonviolent, four out of five arrests are for possession – though possession can result in five-year-plus sentences.
Violent crime is not responsible for our mass incarceration. Drugs are. Drugs don’t make users violent. Their illegality, though, causes addicts, desperate to get drug money, to steal, and it causes violence between dealers.
The drug war has been useful to some politicians as a covert racist appeal to working-class whites by politicians who have little to offer them otherwise (the “Southern strategy”).
We have made remarkable progress racially. Our chief law enforcement official, the attorney general, and our president are black. But when African-Americans become the main target of drug laws, when they are more often arrested, convicted and given longer sentences than whites, there does exist prima facie evidence of prejudice, however unconscious or unnoticed.
Our draconian drug laws ensure not only extreme prison sentences, but that, once released from prison, offenders won’t get jobs, housing and education support, or even be allowed to vote. They are tagged for the rest of their lives.
And inner-city communities suffer further economic and emotional devastation.
Too many of our black men, particularly, have disappeared to prisons, and chances are bleak that they’ll straighten out after prison. Most of us have done illegal things, some very dangerous – speeding, drinking and driving, for example. Can’t we identify with their mistakes?
Distributors of alcohol and beer are no longer considered criminals since the end of Probation, which itself had created a criminal class. Yet they promote a substance that causes some Americans terrible addictive problems and disrupts families. It’s estimated that 20 percent of drinkers consume 80 percent of the alcoholic beverages. Most of us drink enjoyably, without causing much trouble.
Why are we imprisoning huge numbers of Americans for consuming and selling similar substances? At worst, drugs are a medical, not a criminal, problem.
Jim Scofield of Richland Township is a professor emeritus of English at Pitt-Johnstown.