Category: drug policy

“Both sides are us”: Stuntz and Kennedy unpack the spirituality of criminal justice reform

By Alan Bean

In 2010, Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in an Age of Colorblindness, rocked the civil rights community back on its heels.  Alexander accused the criminal justice reform movement of seeking legal solutions to a moral problem, of fighting for affirmative action while abandoning the victims of a brutal and counter-productive drug war, of telling pretty stories about wrongfully convicted poster-boys while ignoring the social nightmares unfolding in poor communities of color.

 If the way we pursue reforms does not contribute to the building of a movement to dismantle the system of mass incarceration, and if our advocacy does not upset the prevailing public consensus that supports the new caste system, none of the reforms, even if won, will successfully disrupt the nation’s racial equilibrium.  Challenges to the system will be easily absorbed or deflected, and the accommodations made will serve primarily to legitimate the system, not undermine it.  We run the risk of winning isolated battles but losing the larger war.

In 2011, two books by white males revealed that Michelle Alexander is not the only American scholar in search of a new moral consensus for ending mass incarceration.   The Collapse of American Criminal Justice by William J. Stuntz, and Don’t Shoot: One Man, A Street Fellowship, and the End of Violence in Inner-City America by David M. Kennedy are not books written in response to Alexander’s The New Jim Crow.  Stuntz and Kennedy are white male academics who see mass incarceration and the war on drugs as unmitigated disasters.  These authors tackle America’s racial history head on.  Most importantly, they agree with Alexander that a movement to end mass incarceration must begin with a new moral consensus.    (more…)

We need a new vision

Paul Krugman thinks Washington should drop its phoney preoccupation with things like debt and inflation and get down to the real issue–employment.

I agree.  Unfortunately, the political-economic tides have been running in the other direction for over three decades.  Between 1932 and 1980, American presidents tried to bring the nation as close to full employment as possible–it was their primary preoccupation.  In his book, The Great Inflation and Its Aftermath: The Past and Future of American Affluence, Washington Post economics columnist Robert Samuelson argues that everything changed for the better following the recession of 1980.  The goal of full employment was replaced by the goal of stimulating economic growth by controlling inflation and creating a corporate-friendly environment.  (more…)

Jimmy Carter: Call Off the Global Drug War

This op-ed in the NY Times from President Jimmy Carter speaks for itself.  Now, if we can just get Bill Clinton to admit that he extended Ronald
Reagan’s militaristic solution to the drug probelm, we might be getting somewhere.  AGB

Call Off the Global Drug War

Published: June 16, 2011



IN an extraordinary new initiative announced earlier this month, the Global Commission on Drug Policy has made some courageous and profoundly important recommendations in a report on how to bring more effective control over the illicit drug trade. The commission includes the former presidents or prime ministers of five countries, a former secretary general of the United Nations, human rights leaders, and business and government leaders, including Richard Branson, George P. Shultz and Paul A. Volcker.

The report describes the total failure of the present global antidrug effort, and in particular America’s “war on drugs,” which was declared 40 years ago today. It notes that the global consumption of opiates has increased 34.5 percent, cocaine 27 percent and cannabis 8.5 percent from 1998 to 2008. Its primary recommendations are to substitute treatment for imprisonment for people who use drugs but do no harm to others, and to concentrate more coordinated international effort on combating violent criminal organizations rather than nonviolent, low-level offenders.

These recommendations are compatible with United States drug policy from three decades ago. In a message to Congress in 1977, I said the country should decriminalize the possession of less than an ounce of marijuana, with a full program of treatment for addicts. I also cautioned against filling our prisons with young people who were no threat to society, and summarized by saying: “Penalties against possession of a drug should not be more damaging to an individual than the use of the drug itself.”

These ideas were widely accepted at the time. But in the 1980s President Ronald Reagan and Congress began to shift from balanced drug policies, including the treatment and rehabilitation of addicts, toward futile efforts to control drug imports from foreign countries.

This approach entailed an enormous expenditure of resources and the dependence on police and military forces to reduce the foreign cultivation of marijuana, coca and opium poppy and the production of cocaine and heroin. One result has been a terrible escalation in drug-related violence, corruption and gross violations of human rights in a growing number of Latin American countries.

The commission’s facts and arguments are persuasive. It recommends that governments be encouraged to experiment “with models of legal regulation of drugs … that are designed to undermine the power of organized crime and safeguard the health and security of their citizens.” For effective examples, they can look to policies that have shown promising results in Europe, Australia and other places.

But they probably won’t turn to the United States for advice. Drug policies here are more punitive and counterproductive than in other democracies, and have brought about an explosion in prison populations. At the end of 1980, just before I left office, 500,000 people were incarcerated in America; at the end of 2009 the number was nearly 2.3 million. There are 743 people in prison for every 100,000 Americans, a higher portion than in any other country and seven times as great as in Europe. Some 7.2 million people are either in prison or on probation or parole — more than 3 percent of all American adults!

Some of this increase has been caused by mandatory minimum sentencing and “three strikes you’re out” laws. But about three-quarters of new admissions to state prisons are for nonviolent crimes. And the single greatest cause of prison population growth has been the war on drugs, with the number of people incarcerated for nonviolent drug offenses increasing more than twelvefold since 1980.

Not only has this excessive punishment destroyed the lives of millions of young people and their families (disproportionately minorities), but it is wreaking havoc on state and local budgets. Former California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger pointed out that, in 1980, 10 percent of his state’s budget went to higher education and 3 percent to prisons; in 2010, almost 11 percent went to prisons and only 7.5 percent to higher education.

Maybe the increased tax burden on wealthy citizens necessary to pay for the war on drugs will help to bring about a reform of America’s drug policies. At least the recommendations of the Global Commission will give some cover to political leaders who wish to do what is right.

A few years ago I worked side by side for four months with a group of prison inmates, who were learning the building trade, to renovate some public buildings in my hometown of Plains, Ga. They were intelligent and dedicated young men, each preparing for a productive life after the completion of his sentence. More than half of them were in prison for drug-related crimes, and would have been better off in college or trade school.

To help such men remain valuable members of society, and to make drug policies more humane and more effective, the American government should support and enact the reforms laid out by the Global Commission on Drug Policy.

Jimmy Carter, the 39th president, is the founder of the Carter Center and the winner of the 2002 Nobel Peace Prize.

David Simon offers to make a new season of ‘The Wire’ if the feds end their drug war

Eric Holder and stars of 'The Wire' discuss endangered children.Attorney General Eric Holder recently appeared with several actors from the HBO series ‘The Wire’ to discuss the plight of children exposed to the drug culture.  It seems the program, co-produced by David Simon and Ed Burns, is a real hit at the Justice Department.  President Obama is also a big fan.  In fact, AG Holder is so impressed with The Wire he ordered Simon and Burns to produce at least one additional season.

“I want to speak directly to Mr. Burns and Mr. Simon. Do another season of ‘The Wire.’ That’s actually at a minimum….if you don’t do a season, do a movie. We’ve done HBO movies; this is a series that deserves a movie. I want another season or I want a movie. I have a lot of power Mr. Burns and Mr. Simon.” (more…)

Will lowered federal penalties for crack cocaine be retroactive?

By Victoria Frayre

Imagine being sentenced to prison for life for possession of crack cocaine and then one day being given the possibility of a reduced sentence or possibly even an eventual release. How would this change your life and the lives of your family and friends?

This could be an eventual reality for thousands of prisoners currently serving disproportionately longer sentences for possession of crack cocaine as compared to those caught with powder cocaine. (more…)

To the surprise of no one . . .

By Alec Goodwin

The Global Commission on Drug Policy is calling the war on drugs a complete and utter failure.

Finally, someone has the spine to admit what everyone has known for years; that the war on drugs has been a costly, deadly fiasco.

The report, which was prepared by former world leaders and UN members such as UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, the former leaders of Mexico, Colombia and
Brazil, and the entrepreneur Sir Richard Branson, soundly condemns the war on drugs as ineffective, wasting millions of taxpayer dollars and leading to rampant drug crime and death.  The report is intensely critical of the United States, where we’re less concerned than other nations about treating drug addicts and users and more concerned about punishing them.  According to the report, America lacks the courage to admit in public that our methods have been ineffective and counterproductive. (more…)

Texas politicians choose prisons over schools

A recent article in The Economist argues that conservatives can call for criminal justice reform without appearing to be tough on crime.  The Lone Star State is held up as a prime example of conservative politicians turning away from mass incarceration:

Texas began tackling these problems in the last decade. In 2003 it started mandating probation rather than prison for first-time offenders caught with less than a gram of hard drugs. Two years later it gave the probation board more money to improve supervision and treatment programmes. In 2007, faced with predictions that it would need over 17,000 new prison beds by 2012, requiring $1.13 billion to build and $1.5 billion to operate, Texas allocated $241m to fund treatment programmes. Since 2003 crime of many kinds has declined in Texas. Between 2007 and 2008, Texas’s incarceration rate fell by 4.5%, while nationally the rate rose slightly. Both juvenile crime and the number of juveniles in state institutions have declined.

Over at Grits for Breakfast, Scott Henson isn’t convinced.  (more…)

Alexander v. McWhorter: who’s got the winning formula?

By Alan Bean

John McWhorter and Michelle Alexander agree that the war on drugs should be abandoned.  They also agree that far too many young black males are languishing in American prisons.  But McWhorter thinks Alexander’s call for a consensus-shifting movement is wrong-headed.  It’s wrong-headed because it’s impractical.  It’s impractical because white people are sick and tired of being demonized.  As McWhorter sees it, we simply will not listen to a social analysis that identifies white racism at the heart of the problem.

McWhorter isn’t saying that Alexander is wrong when she associates the war on drugs with a “Southern strategy” rooted in white resentment; he just feels that, as a practical matter, that argument can’t be sold in the white-dominated American marketplace.

This is an important issue.  For criminal justice reformers, it is THE issue.  Should we embrace the “only a movement” philosophy of Michelle Alexander, or the “end the drug war and white guilt is gone” idea John McWhorter has been championing?  Alexander is asking for the second phase of the civil rights movement; McWhorter is looking for an argument that works in an incurably cynical world.

One thing is certain: at some point we must connect with white moderates; if we don’t, the political fight cannot be won.  But how do we win over white moderates?  Do we conform our arguments to their fears, anxieties and preferences, or do we challenge them to embrace a revolutionary vision grounded in love, mercy and justice?

Whether Michelle Alexander knows it or not (and I suspect she does) she is calling for nothing less than a full-blown religious revival.  The values she espouses are biblical values; they won’t work in the political arena, and they aren’t that welcome in most white churches either (if the preacher gets concrete and specific).  Martin Luther King knew that mainstream white America wasn’t ready for integration, so he launched a movement fired by a religious revival.  Mainstream white America isn’t ready to end the drug war; it could even be argued that white folks need the drug war because it reinforces our most cherished prejudices.  Can anything short of a spiritual revival alter this social landscape? (more…)

Supreme Court tells California to cut prison population by 33,000

Prison overcrowdingBy Alan Bean

A Supreme Court ruling will soon force the state of California to reduce its prison population by at least 33,000.  Noting that the state prison system was built for an inmate population of 80,000, the five justices in favor of this move noted that, at one point, the Golden State was housing 160,000 prisoners.

The big question, of course, is how the state will comply with this ruling.  Dissenting justices like Antonin Scalia and Samuel Alito predict that the streets will run with blood if 33,000 offenders are suddenly returned to the streets.  Apparently, conservative justices feel it is okay for  California to stack human beings like cord wood. (more…)

“Only a movement built on love”: Michelle Alexander at Riverside Church

“Now I want to be clear that when I’m talking about love, I’m not just talking about love for people who have committed crimes like we may have committed, crimes that we think are not so bad; I’m talking about the kind of care and love that keeps on loving no matter who you are or what you have done. It’s that kind of love that is needed to build this movement.”  (Michelle Alexander)

In the 1920s, with the fundamentalist-modernist controversy raging within his own Northern Baptist Convention, John D. Rockefeller built an architecturally imposing church in the heart of one of New York’s most prestigious neighborhoods, opened it to people of all Christian denominations and called an American Baptist preacher named Harry Emerson Fosdick to be his pastor.  Through the years, Riverside Church has become associated with prophetic preaching, dramatic worship and ecumenical mission.

In 1992, Riverside Church adopted a statement of faith proclaiming:  “the worship of God, known in Jesus, the Christ, through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit … to serve God through word and witness, to treat all human beings as sisters and brothers; and to foster responsible stewardship of God’s creation … The church pledges itself to education, reflection, and action for peace and justice and the realization of the vision of the heavenly banquet where all are loved and blessed.”

This statement of faith nicely captures the conclusion of Michelle Alexander’s address at Riverside this past weekend.  Calling for “A great awakening” Alexander re-stated her firm belief that only a new social movement can end mass incarceration in America.  As her closing remarks make clear, this movement must be built on a solid moral foundation and, for those of us who follow Jesus, that means taking our Savior at his word.  (more…)