Last week, Eugene Jarecki, director of the award-winning documentary, The House I Live In, launched a powerful online video, featuring the talented break dancers of the Oakland-based Tuf Feinz dance crew.
The “JUST SAY NO…to the War on Drugs” video calls out the colossal failure of the war on drugs by highlighting the ineffectiveness of our drug policies since former President Richard Nixon declared drug abuse as public enemy number one, nearly 40 years ago. It is the latest effort by Jarecki to spur massive public support for drug policy reform efforts at both the state and national level.
The recent Peabody Award winner has screened his documentary in prisons, churches, and high schools across the country in collaboration with dozens of local community groups. Jarecki is now using the online video to generate a national call to action around the bipartisan Smarter Sentencing Act (S. 1410) pending before the U.S. Senate, the most extensive effort at reforming drug sentencing laws in decades.
This legislation comes at a time when both Attorney General Eric Holder and the Obama Administration have made notable steps to address the impact of mass incarceration and ineffective policies that have plagued our criminal justice system for far too long. Among these were Holder’s announcement to scale back on mandatory minimum sentencing policies, an announcement to increase the number of clemencies granted for nonviolent drug crimes, and the launch of the “My Brother’s Keeper” initiative. More and more our leaders are recognizing the failure of the war on drugs and beginning to take concrete steps to reverse course.
One of those important steps, the Smarter Sentencing Act, would help address the mass incarceration and associated racial disparities under our current drug laws. Nearly 200,000 people are in federal custody and about half of those are imprisoned for a drug offense. The majority of which are people of color, despite the fact that people of all races use and sell drugs at approximately the same rate. Fifty-three percent of people sentenced for federal drug offenses in 2012 had little or no prior criminal record. And only 10 people in the entire nation were convicted under the kingpin statute. These numbers unveil the absurdity of our current drug laws, debunking the myth that our drug laws do much, if anything, to protect public safety.
If passed, the Smarter Sentencing Act would reduce mandatory minimums for nonviolent drug offenses, increase judicial discretion, and retroactively apply the 2010 crack-cocaine reform law to thousands who were unjustly sentenced.
Dozens of organizations working on criminal justice reform issues, including the Drug Policy Alliance, Correctional Association of New York, the Sentencing Project, the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, and Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference as well as a growing number of celebrities, such as John Legend, Aloe Blacc, and Van Jones are now using the video to build support for the Smarter Sentencing Act.
The passage of the Smarter Sentencing Act could be a defining moment. We must demand comprehensive sentencing reform in order to dramatically reduce the federal prison population and begin to remedy the devastation that the war on drugs has wreaked on our communities. Join me and the hundreds of organizations and individuals working to pass the Smarter Sentencing Act by pressuring the Senate to take action now.
This article first appeared on the Drug Policy Alliance Blog.