The “War on Drugs” is one of the biggest policy failures in American history and the Department of Justice is finally starting to acknowledge it. The draconian sentencing guidelines, brought on by the Reagan administration’s attempts to rid the streets of drugs, have done nothing but tear families apart, put nonviolent drug offenders in prison — sometimes for decades — and have left scores of children without their parents. Now, many of those kids will be reunited with the parents they lost as Obama’s Justice Department gets ready to release up to 6,000 low-level, nonviolent drug offenders from federal prisons.
Earlier this year, President Obama came out against the “War on Drugs” and blasted the policies that have torn families apart for decades, calling it “counterproductive” and “devastating” to families:
“I am a very strong believer that the path we have taken in the United States in the so-called war on drugs has been so heavy in emphasizing incarceration that it has been counterproductive,” he said. “You have young people who did not engage in violence who get very long penalties, who get placed in prison and then are rendered economically unemployable, are almost pushed into the underground economy, learn crime more effectively in prison — families are devastated. So it’s been very unproductive.”
In an attempt to remedy this, the Justice Department will start releasing the men and women who have been given outrageous sentences for petty drug crimes. In the first wave of sentence reductions, up to 6,000 inmates will be released by the Bureau of Prisons, between Oct. 30 and Nov. 2. It will be the largest one-time release of inmates in our history.
According to the Washington Post, the decision to reduce the sentences of the inmates came after the U.S. Sentencing Commission decided to apply new sentencing guidelines to people convicted of low-level drug offenses. An official with the Justice Department told the newspaper that the vast majority of the inmates released have served decades for their crimes and the average sentence reduction has been about two years.
Jesselyn McCurdy, senior legislative counsel with the American Civil Liberties Union, agrees with the decision to release the prisoners. “Far too many people have lost years of their lives to draconian sentencing laws born of the failed drug war” she said, adding that the organization is “overjoyed that some of the people so wronged will get their freedom back.” She also pointed out that many of the people targeted for drug offenses are minorities.
McCurdy is right; Bureau of Justice Statistics show that fifty-nine percent of male inmates were either African-American or Hispanic.
“Almost 3% of black male U.S. residents of all ages were imprisoned on December 31, 2013 (2,805 inmates per 100,000 black male U.S. residents), compared to 1% of Hispanic males (1,134 per 100,000) and 0.5% of white males (466 per 100,000)….Black males had higher imprisonment rates across all age groups than all other races and Hispanic males. In the age range with the highest imprisonment rates for males (ages 25 to 39), black males were imprisoned at rates at least 2.5 times greater than Hispanic males and 6 times greater than white males.”
Thirty-two percent of the people put in prison for drug offenses had no prior criminal record and yet, the average sentence for a first time drug offender is six years in prison. African-Americans are imprisoned at a rate SIX TIMES greater than white males and as we know, their sentences tend to be much harsher than whites.
In addition to the 6,000 inmates released over the next two months, roughly 8,550 more will be eligible for release within the next year. President Obama is also granting clemency to some low-level drug offenders, so that the rest of their lives are not marred by a stupid mistake. He has also asked that prosecutors refrain from charging minor offenders with serious crimes that carry ridiculous mandatory-minimum sentences.
It’s about time that our nation owned up to the failure of our misguided attempts to fight “criminality.” Since Nixon’s presidency, this country has been spending trillions of dollars locking up our citizens for crimes that deserve no more than a slap on the wrist. The only people who have gained anything from this atrocious war on our own people, are those making huge profits off the prison-industrial complex. This is certainly one of President Obama’s biggest achievements, but Republican obstructionism means he can only do so much on his own. The only way we will really stop the vicious cycle of prison and poverty is by enacting common sense drug laws and taking meaningful steps to address the socioeconomic inequalities and lack of opportunities which feed the drug trade in the first place.
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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.