Friday, August 16, 2013

The Economics and Immorality of a Failed Drug War

Many commentators now agree that the War on Drugs has become an epic failure.  That the Obama administration and AG Holder have publicly acknowledged as much is a good first step in correcting the fail, but it is just a small first step.  Holder's announcement is simply a policy shift.  This shift does not carry the weight of the law behind it, nor has any new legislative enactment mandated this change of policy direction.  And, as is the case in all policy decisions, it can later be reversed by a politician of a different mind.  Essentially, Holder's pronouncement means that federal prosecutors, who wield enormous discretionary power in our crime and punishment system, will be directed to use that discretion now to no longer prosecute low level, non-violent drug offenders to the full extent that the law currently allows.  Federal prosecutors have been directed to power down the charging authority handed them by Congress and the courts, that enables massively disproportionate punishment outcomes and devastating consequences.

Our nation's prisons are overflowing with low level, non-violent marijuana users and sellers costing the United States billions per year.  More than 40% of our country's prison population has been incarcerated on draconian marijuana convictions.  Of those drug convictions, more than 70% have been African American and Latino offenders.  The outrage in this outcome, is that statistics reveal that drug use occurs at a fairly consistent rate/percentage across races, meaning basically that the War on Drugs has been enforced in a wildly discriminatory manner.  Drug use percentages is essentially the same for white citizens, Asian citizens, African American citizens, and Latino citizens, yet 70% of convicted drug felons are black and Latino.  Law enforcement has systematically targeted minority and urban communities to win their drug convictions, literally steering clear of suburban, beach city, and University drug users.

Not surprisingly, local law enforcement has come out in opposition to Holder's policy announcement.  For three decades, national law enforcement has prosecuted the War on Drugs in a very systematic and discriminatory manner.  Holder's policy will force peace officers to begin targeting high level drug kingpins and cartel bosses, not low level, non-violent offenders who literally fill our nation's prisons to overcrowding.  Statistics will now be kept differently as police officers that turn low level drug users over to prosecutors will be sorely disappointed when prosecutorial discretion is used to refuse to charge the low level offenders, despite the draconian laws that call for such charging.

The tide seems to be turning on the drug war.  Momentum is growing for real and radical change.  Although this Holder policy shift is a small step, Adam Gopnik at the New Yorker argues in "Mandatory Sentences and Moral Change" that small steps can sometimes signal enormous sea changes.  I am optimistic that we can begin to turn back the incredibly misguided era of mass incarceration in the United States.  That said, corporate power and influence will have to be dealt with and thwarted as profit maximization in the private prison industry has become a powerful force in the U.S. punishment regime.

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