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Hey Progressives: Why Don't you Care About the "Drug War" Like You Care About Other Issues?

If the 500,000 nonviolent drug offenders in jail had white faces, would society allow it?

The following is the text of Drug Policy Alliance Director Ethan Nadelmann's speech to the Momentum Plenary at the America's Future Now conference in Washington. It has been edited for length and clarity.

The issue of over-incarceration and the overuse of the criminal justice system in America strike me as one of the most horrific violations of human rights in the United States today.

What I'm also struck by is the extent to which our American exceptionalism in this regard is unknown to so many who should know.

I'm going to throw some numbers at you:

    * We have increased the number of people behind bars from roughly 500,000 people in 1980 to 2.3 million today.

    * In the U.S., we have less than 5 percent of the world's population, but almost 25 percent of the world's prisoners.

    * We rank first in the world in the per capita incarceration of our fellow citizens. First in the world -- We are No. 1.

Keep in mind, we are not so different as people sometimes think when it comes to crime, and even drug use: Our rates of crime, apart from homicide, are not that different from other industrialized nations, and our rates of illicit drug use are somewhat higher, but not dramatically higher than these other countries.

Yet we incarcerate people at five to 10 times the rate of most other nations. We are quicker to put people behind bars when they commit an offense; we keep people behind bars for longer once they are there; and once they come out, we put our heels in their faces and keep them down for as long as we possibly can.

Keep in mind it's not just the 2.3 million people behind bars but 5 million other people under the supervision of parole and probation in the U.S. right now. We deprive them of the right to vote like no other democratic nation does; we subject them to other sanctions and discriminations like no other country; and we make it very easy for them to get sent back to prison once again.

I want this issue to be part of the progressive coalition. I want to come to next year's progressive conference and hear the issue of prisons mentioned at least once on an opening plenary. What, after all, does it mean to be a progressive in America and live in a society that has this kind of exceptionalism? What does it mean to live in a society where over 2 million of our fellow citizens are behind bars tonight?

The issue of race is an inescapable part of this -- because we know that if the color of the faces of most of the people behind bars were white and not black, the reaction of the public would be different. There's something that clicks in our heads, that somehow when you see a black or brown face, especially a young male face, behind bars, there's that element -- even among all of us who do not consider ourselves racist and believe in fighting against racism -- there's that little click that accepts that on some level.

When you're talking about economic opportunity -- and approximately 50 percent of young black men in many cities already have a criminal record, already have a better chance of going to jail than university -- you realize this is not just an issue of race or of human rights but also an economic issue.

When you look at the growing power of the prison-industrial complex in our society, when you look at the prosecutors and the police, the prison guards' unions and the private prison builders -- that coalition has become a profoundly powerful and pernicious force in our society.