The Color of the War on Drugs

News & Politics

"The drug war is a proxy for racism," says Andy Ko, Project Director of ACLU-Washington's Drug Policy Reform Project. "Most modern politicians wouldn't dream of explicitly advocating that society persecute or enslave poor people or members of minority communities. But that is exactly what is happening as a result of the 'get-tough-on-crime' drug war policies of the past few decades."

Ten years ago, perspectives such as these might still have been viewed as exaggerated, rhetorical stabs at trying to reverse the trend of skyrocketing U.S. incarceration rates.

But today, civil liberties attorneys like Ko are being joined by what amounts to a nationwide chorus of drug war dissenters.

"It's impossible, in the [sociohistorical] context that we're living in now, to think about civil and human rights without looking at the impact of the War on Drugs," says Sharda Sekaran, Associate Director of Public Policy and Community Outreach for the Drug Policy Alliance in New York. "We now have the vantage point from which to examine the impact of decades of failed drug policies on the nation's most vulnerable communities."

A Growing Movement

The Drug Policy Alliance (DPA), the nation's leading organization promoting alternatives to the War on Drugs, is gearing up for a national conference focusing on the impact of punitive drug policies on communities of color

"Breaking the Chains: People of Color and the War on Drugs" plans to bring hundreds of religious leaders, civil rights advocates, addiction treatment specialists, musicians and elected officials to downtown Los Angeles from September 26th-28th to discuss what the organization has unabashedly referred to as America's "apartheid-like" criminal justice system.

The conference hopes to build on the momentum generated in August 2001, when an ad-hoc group of more than 100 celebrities, politicians, religious leaders and drug policy reform activists (including Danny Glover, New Mexico Governor Gary Johnson, NAACP Chair Julian Bond and former U.S. Surgeon General Jocelyn Elders) sent a letter to UN Secretary General Kofi Annan urging recognition of the War on Drugs as a "de facto form of racism." Representatives of the group then took their message to the World Conference Against Racism in Durban, South Africa, to generate discussion and awareness about the disproportionate arrest and sentencing of low-income minorities on drug-related charges in the U.S.

The time is right for the Los Angeles conference, says DPA's Sekaran, because the inequities are now "glaringly obvious." Citizen-supported initiatives favoring treatment over incarceration in states including New Mexico, Arizona, California and Washington have convinced some politicians that a shift away from incarceration toward the treatment of drug addiction as a public health concern, is no longer a "third rail issue."

But the shift is slow in coming, largely because the national criminal justice trend over the past two decades has overwhelmingly favored long, punitive prison sentences over comprehensive strategies toward addressing drug addiction, alcoholism, poverty and mental illness. Beginning with the Sentencing Reform Act of 1984, the modern era of the War on Drugs was ratcheted up by the Anti-Drug Abuse Acts of 1986 and 1988, which imposed harsh sentences for the possession of crack cocaine. Parole was essentially abolished for drug offenders in federal prisoners�and then made difficult (if not impossible) for many state prisoners. In the years to follow, many states followed suit with intensified mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines, and the jingoistic "three-strikes-you're-out legislation," sealing the fate of hundreds of thousands of men and women behind bars.

The results of this intensification of the drug war have been dramatic and devastating. With two million Americans doing time behind bars, our country now imprisons roughly 500,000 men and women on drug-related charges, at an annual cost of $9.4 billion.

Undeniable Disparities

Of the men and women serving more than one year in state prisons for drug-related offenses in 2001, over three-quarters were people of color. Regardless of the fact that, numerically speaking, five times as many Euro-Americans use drugs in the U.S. as African Americans (for more on this subject, see Tim Wise's article in this issue, "Affirmative Inaction"), a host of practices in law enforcement and the criminal justice system have led to glaring disparities in incarceration rates.

Indeed, racial profiling, buy-and-bust undercover operations, and specially-funded gang task forces have all but guaranteed higher arrest rates within communities of color. These policies and procedures have then, in turn, been exacerbated by overzealous city prosecutors and judges who have little or no wiggle room in meting out mandatory minimum sentences for drug-related offenses.

African Americans are, by and far, the most overrepresented ethnic group in the prison system: at just 12.3% of the national population, African Americans made up 58% of the state prison population in 2000 doing time for drug-related offenses. Euro-Americans, by comparison, constitute 75% of the national population, but make up 23% of men and women doing time for drug-related crimes in state prisons.

"For young Black men born in 1966, they are more likely to have gone to prison than to have graduated from a four-year college," says Professor Bruce Western, a professor of sociology at Princeton University. "Prison is now as common as any other life event."

The government's own Bureau of Justice Statistics reports that fully ten percent of African American men nationwide between the ages of 25-29 were in prison in 2001. And although men still far outnumber women in state and federal prisons (at 93.4% versus 6.6%), African American women now represent the single fastest growing segment of the prison population.

According to Human Rights Watch's "Punishment and Prejudice: Racial Disparities in the War on Drugs," African Americans in seven states actually account for between 80 and 90 percent of all people sent to prison on drug charges. The extreme end of the racial disparity continuum is represented by states like Illinois, where African American men are sent to prison on drug charges at 57 times the rate of Euro-American men.

The extent to which African Americans are incarcerated has led to a political disenfranchisement unparalleled since the Jim Crow era: today, almost 1.4 million African American men have been temporarily or permanently stripped of the right to vote because of a felony conviction. Latinos are similarly over-represented behind bars, particularly in the federal prison system. In 1999, almost half of men and women charged with a federal drug offense were Latino, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. Nearly 30% were African American, while 25% were Euro-American. From 1985 to 1995, the presence of Latinos in prisons in the U.S. grew faster than any other ethnic group�by 219%.

While the Bureau of Justice Statistics does not track the proportions of Native Americans in prison, the rise in these populations has been documented by correctional departments in such states as New Mexico, Arizona, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Washington and California. Notably, the percentage of Asian-Americans in the federal prison population increased fourfold from 1980 to 1999.

"The 'drug warriors' know perfectly well who they're after: African Americans, Latinos, Asian 'gang members,' and, increasingly, poor European Americans," says Ko.

Ruined Lives

The drug war arrest and sentencing trends in communities of color have not been limited to adults. Youth of color convicted of drug-related offenses are being sent to juvenile detention centers�and even to adult prisons in states like New Mexico and Arizona�at rates that far surpass those of their Euro-American counterparts.

A report released this past July by Building Blocks for Youth, for instance, revealed that the average incarceration rate for Latino youth is now 13 times the rate of Euro-American youth. Between 1983 and 1991, the percentage of Latino youth in public detention facilities increased by 84%, compared with an 8% increase for Euro-American youth.

Because most juvenile detention facilities are geared toward the notion of punishment rather than rehabilitation, youth emerge from the system undereducated and emotionally ill equipped to deal with the pressures and economic demands of life in the free world. In this sense, many youth of color make a quick transition from juvenile detention facilities to adult prisons, where their age, size and inexperience often makes them the target of physical and sexual abuse.

Tellingly, two-thirds of state prisoners have less than a high school education and one-third were unemployed at the time of their arrest.

Professor Western, who has studied the impact and cycle of joblessness and incarceration on the lives of African American men, notes that ex-offenders tend to do "poorly on the outside."

Employers, he points out, are very reluctant to hire people with criminal backgrounds. And the ex-offender pool among African American men, adds Western, is "is enormous and will only continue to exacerbate wage inequality."

In 2001, roughly 400,000 men and women, most of who were people of color, were released from prison or jail. And year after year, the same recidivism trends play out. With limited employment and housing resources, roughly two-thirds of people released from incarceration nationwide are rearrested within three years. Most of the arrests take place within the first six months after release.

The reason for high recidivism rates among all former prisoners�and particularly drug offenders�has everything to do with the host of problems that they face in trying to reintegrate into society. Once released, prisoners are often sicker, angrier, and more alienated from their communities. Outside of 12-step peer groups, drug treatment services and programs are increasingly scarce in most prisons in the U.S. Under the best of circumstances, ex-offenders are often confronted with the reality that their old habits, coping mechanisms and temptations hold an enormous amount of power over their lives, particularly when even the lowest-paying jobs prove difficult to obtain with a prison record.

Ex-felons convicted of drug offenses also promptly lose their eligibility for federal assistance for both higher education and public housing. (To worsen matters, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled earlier this year that even innocent family members of people who used drugs can be evicted from public housing, regardless of whether they had knowledge of such drug use.)

And because of a hastily tacked-on amendment to the 1996 Welfare Reform Act, both food stamps and Temporary Aid to Needy Families (TANF) are now denied to most men and women convicted of drug felonies in the U.S.

"The War on Drugs has really been a war on the poor. Rather than supporting those who are vulnerable, we are punishing them and making it even more difficult for them to participate in a very competitive society," says Dan Merkle, co-chair of the Race and Class Disparity Task Force for the Seattle/King County Bar Association's Drug Policy Project.

Nothing about the nation's drug war strategy, adds Ko, indicates a genuine desire to help people battle serious drug problems, particularly in light of consistent cuts in state and federal funding for drug treatment.

"Treatment, harm reduction, education, and regulation are the answers to self-destructive drug use and the drug market," Ko says emphatically. "But our current drug policy depends on prison, deprivation of voting rights, ineligibility for subsistence level food and housing assistance, and loss of eligibility for educational loans, which only compound the misery that often is at the root of compulsive drug use."

Silja J.A. Talvi is a Santa Fe-based freelance journalist whose work has appeared in In These Times, Z Magazine and ColorLines Magazine, among others. She is co-editor of LiP Magazine.

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