Democratic Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders has made reforming the justice system a major priority- and thanks to the way the Department of Justice works, it could happen very quickly. It is clear that the ‘War on Drugs’ – a term that was popularized in the 1970s, during the Nixon administration – is a failure.
Sanders is uniquely placed to actually do something about it. The drug policy is issued from the Justice Department, which is staffed by presidential appointments. On his first day as President, Sanders could appoint like-minded progressives to begin steering the ship in a different direction.
StudentsForBernieSanders writes that “actions like Barack Obama’s recent commuting of people doing life for non violent drug crimes could be carried out on a large scale. Probably most importantly a Sanders administration would have the voice and attention to bring this issue to light and have a real meaningful discussion on the path of least destruction.”
Interestingly, Nixon, in a message to Congress, declared drug abuse “public enemy number one.” His plan was a multipronged approach that that not only called for federal resources to ‘prevent’ new addiction, but also called for resources to be devoted to the ‘rehabilitation’ of addicts.
Our answer to ‘prevention’ has been incarceration – while our answer to the call for ‘rehabilitation’ is virtually non-existent, and not part of the policy of our current prison system. According to a recent article by Jason Ackerman, it is estimated that more than 40,000 people die each year from overdoses. A fact lost in those numbers is drug addiction has been on the rise over the last 35 years – since Nixon called drug abuse “public enemy number one.”
Sanders recognizes the evil for what it is – a for-profit prison industry has a vested interest in keeping people in prison. The industry does not use the billions it earns off the backs of taxpayers to help rehabilitate those who can be rehabilitated, but to lobby Congress to make sure the industry stays in business.
We passed the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, which led to more incarceration as the answer to the drug problem with ‘get tough crime policies’. The act provided for expansion of state prison capacity to accommodate the get tough policy, which led to mandatory minimum sentencing for nonviolent drug crimes, that in some states, led to life sentences – and, most importantly, it led to the commodification of prisons – the rise of for-profit prisons making billions of dollars a year for privately held corporations paid for the by the taxpayer.
Early in his presidency, President Obama refused to use the term ‘war on drugs’, but his administration’s policies had not changed until recently, when he began pardoning nonviolent drug offenders, and calling for an overhaul of our prison systems. The U.S. spends more than $50 billion a year fighting this battle, which just keeps getting worse.
Ackerman believes that as president, Sanders can get Congressional support, especially in light of all of the recent publicity about the worldwide opioid problem. However, Ackerman also argues that as president, Sanders will control the Department of Justice – “American drug policy comes from the Department of Justice which operates within the cabinet and in more or less direct control of the president.”
It is true that the head of the DOJ is the Attorney General of the United States, who is a Cabinet member, and our nation’s chief legal adviser to the president. The DEA, whose job it is to combat drug smuggling into the U.S., is under the control of the DOJ, which reports to the Attorney General. The FBI, which as our chief law enforcement agency is under the jurisdiction of the DOJ, as well as operating as part of the U.S. Intelligence community, reports to the Director of National Intelligence, who also reports and is under the direction and control of the president.
Ackerman is right that a President Sanders will confront a bureaucracy that is the DOJ, but he is also right that as the person who appoints its leaders, and as the person to whom they report, a President Sanders can make a noticeable difference in the lives of millions of people who might otherwise find themselves in the hands of private prisons.
Opinion columnist and former editor-in-chief of Occupy Democrats. He graduated from Bennington College with a Bachelor's degree in history and political science. He now focuses on advancing the cause of social justice and equality in America.