A war we’re losing

The first US President to use the phrase ‘war on drugs’ was not, as we might expect, Ronald Reagan, but Richard Nixon.  However Nixon’s ‘war on drugs,’ at least initially, focused more on rehab than on law enforcement.  Those priorities are long past, as politicians have learned that there are votes to be gained by taking a tough stance on drugs, and by insisting that we’re going to lock up dealers and throw away the key.  But I wonder if the tide may be turning.  There seems to be a growing consensus that the war on drugs has failed, and that it never really did make sense to take what was essentially a public health problem and turn it into a law enforcement problem.  At least that’s an issue where a coalition of libertarian and liberal policy makers may be able to find common ground.  I hope so.

Any look at incarceration rates surely suggests the immensity of the problem we face.  The United States incarcerates 743 citizens per hundred thousand, the highest rate in the world.  Americans complain about human rights violations in China, but in fact, China only jails 120 per hundred thousand of its citizens.  The US has 5% of the world’s population, but a quarter of its prison inmates.  It’s costly–the US spends upwards of 60 billion dollars a year to house our prisoners, and to build new prisons to hold them.  There are way more women in prison than ever before.  In 1977, 11,000 women found themselves in prison–today, it’s over 111, 000. Blacks make up around 13% of the overall population, but 40% of the prison population.  And most of these prisoners aren’t violent.  About half of inmates in state prisons are there for non-violent drug offenses–in federal prison, it’s closer to 90%.

NOTE: in my initial draft, I made an error, a really silly one, suggesting that 7 out of every 10 Americans is in prison.  Obviously, that’s completely wrong.  It’s 743 per 100,000.  Leave off two little zeros, and sound like an idiot.  The link above has the correct figures.

I just watched a terrific, terribly depressing, hyperbolic but superb film, Eugene Jarecki’s The House I Live in.  Check it out–I watched it on Netflix.  It’s one of those 90% plus positive films on Rotten Tomatoes.  I admit that it’s a bit extreme to compare America’s War on Drugs to the Holocaust.  (To be fair, he consistently also points out substantive differences between the two events).  But what he does is point to the many many ways we’ve built perverse economic incentives into the whole War on Drugs fiasco.

For one obvious example–voters like tough talk on drugs.  Any candidate saying ‘we should release non-violent drug offenders from all federal prisons, and arrange for rehab for any with drug problems’ (a solution that would save billions annually if we tried it), would get clobbered in the polls.  Just clobbered.  We know that, don’t we?  Even though it’s silly, isn’t there an atavistic part of us all that rather likes the idea of locking up bad guys?  And aren’t drug dealers bad guys?  (Never mind that most small dealers are addicts, selling to support their own habits, people with an illness and, usually, multiple problems).  So first and foremost, we need to change that, change attitudes.  An uphill fight, but one we need to begin with.

Politicians have no incentive to oppose, for example, getting rid of mandatory sentencing minimums.  So Jarecki interviews a guy who has been in prison for eleven years, and will be in prison for the rest of his life–his sentence is for life, with no parole.  His crime?  He sold four ounces of methamphetamine.  But add that offense to two youthful violations for marijuana possession, and add ‘three strikes and out’ sentencing requirements, and this non-violent offender will never get out of prison.  Why did he do drugs?  Well, for starters, his father was a drug addict.  He has a brother who died of an overdose.  He has a drug problem.  Keeping in prison for life, though, strikes me as absurd.

But there are other, even more perverse incentives to keep the war on drugs going.  For one thing, cops like it, and police departments like it.  Confiscating drug money can be a major revenue stream for cash-strapped police departments.  And in many areas, police are compensated according to their arrest records.  It’s very easy to cruise bad neighborhoods and find lots of low-level dealers.  With every bust, an enterprising officer can apply for overtime, and for arrest bonuses.  Some cops can double their salaries with drug arrest bonuses. And in a revolving door criminal justice system, where perps get, often enough, badly overworked public defenders under pressure to plea them out, such policing basics as probable cause can go right out the window.  Jarecki interviewed police officers who point out that a narcotics cop can make more money than a homicide detective, simply by processing tons of low level dealers.

Many state prisons are operated by private firms, in it for profits, their stock traded on Wall Street.  What incentive do private prisons have to do any rehabilitation at all?  Jarecki interviews inmates at an Oklahoma prison who have learned advanced cabinetry while in prison.  It’s difficult for anyone with a criminal record to get a job, but a skill, like carpentry or cabinetry or woodworking can really help.  Obviously, if a prisoner gets out with a marketable skill, he’s much more likely to stay out on release.  But state legislators with an eye to budget cuts generally make vocational training the first programs to go.  And recidivism increases.

In 1844, Mormon prophet Joseph Smith ran for President.  Prison reform was a huge plank in his platform.  He wrote:

Petition your State Legislatures to pardon every convict in their several penitentiaries, blessing them as they go, and saying to them, in the name of the Lord, go thy way and sin no more. Advise your legislators, when they make laws for larceny, burglary, or any felony, to make the penalty applicable to work upon roads, public works, or any place where the culprit can be taught more wisdom and more virtue, and become more enlightened. Rigor and seclusion will never do as much to reform the propensities of men as reason and friendship. Murder only can claim confinement or death. Let the penitentiaries be turned into seminaries of learning, where intelligence, like the angels of heaven, would banish such fragments of barbarism. Imprisonment for debt is a meaner practice than the savage tolerates, with all his ferocity.

Dude was soft on crime!  But there’s a wisdom there that I can’t help agreeing with.

We need to recognize that people who deal drugs in this country are making a rational economic decision.  Supply and demand: certain drugs are attractive to people–there’s high demand.  And our absurd drug laws artificially limit supply.  The result is a lucrative industry for entrepreneurship. If you’re from a poor neighborhood, with few jobs available and shuttered businesses and closed factories, why wouldn’t you participate in the underground economy?  If we want to end that economy, wouldn’t it make much more sense to legalize drugs, and tax them?  Then provide drug rehab free of charge to anyone who wants it.  Support that federally.  Would that cost money?  Yes, but a tiny fraction of what we already spend on incarceration.

What we’re doing right now doesn’t work.  We’re destroying lives, destroying families, destroying priceless human capital, and accomplishing nothing by it.  The War on Drugs was announced by Richard Nixon, championed by Ronald Reagan, strongly supported by Bill Clinton, expanded by George W. Bush.  The ‘most dangerous drug’ rhetoric, meanwhile keeps changing, from marijuana to heroin to cocaine to crystal meth.  Misuse of prescription drugs is a big one right now.  Why not just admit that we have a public health problem?  And stop throwing away the futures of non-violent offenders, left to rot their lives away in prison.


4 thoughts on “A war we’re losing

  1. Eric "C" Heaps

    I already agreed with this before, but several years ago I had a brother-in-law killed in prison. A non-violent drug offender killed by violence in the prison system. He had some big problems, but he needed help not death.

  2. Andi Evans

    You said 743 per thousand…. Do you mean per thousand convicted? Please cite the source; my husband says its about 5% of people who are arrested who get incarcerated…he is an attorney.


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