Independent Thoughts on Criminal Justice: Part 3
III. Injustice, Thy Name is Drug War
I have written about the War on Drugs on several occasions, because it disrupts our society in so many ways. As with other criminal justice issues I've mentioned, statistics will never truly represent how much damage that what I call "World War III" has done to our communities, our families, our police, and our collective psyche. It's a small relief to me that after all these years, our society has started to recognize the futility of the Drug War status quo.
The demonization of drug users didn't work. Complex and entangling global drug policies, such as the 1961 United Nations Single Convention on Narcotics, haven't done anything to help eliminate global drug trafficking. The United States-led Drug War has played a role in destabilizing some Latin countries. Inadvertently or not, we're arming the drug cartels of Mexico. Harsh prison sentences haven't worked. Judges lost their ability to discern who deserved to be sent to prison. Mandatory minimum sentences, some of them 5 years or more, became commonplace for personal-sized amounts of illegal narcotics. Rapists and robbers often receive less time in jail. I can also speak of the endless cruelties shown to terminally ill, sick, and disabled for use of medical marijuana, but we'll cover that and other pot-related matters in the next section. People are finally beginning to see through the Drug War's crumbling outer facade of perceived morality and righteousness--exposing the layers of corruption, greed, racism, ineptitude, terrible consequences, and hypocrisy underneath.
Am I saying we should legalize the sale of every single drug that is currently banned? No. I'll elaborate more on that in future sections. However, I don't think people, especially politicians, can truly appreciate the collateral damage done by arresting our citizens for simple drug possession. People's careers, families, and finances are affected long after a jail sentence ends. Our last three Presidents would have been jailed--and their careers ruined--if they had been caught with the illegal narcotics they admitted to using--or in the "honest" words of our 42nd President, "not inhaling". Even 82% of police chiefs and sheriffs think that the War on Drugs has been ineffective.
We have set up our law enforcement for failure--and put them in unnecessary harm--by placing such a heavy emphasis on violence, arrests, and lengthy prison terms to punish drug users and small-time dealers. The tactic known as "no-knock" SWAT raids was fueled by War on Drugs hysteria, and has resulted in the killing or maiming of innocent police officers, civilians, and children. For example, seven-year-old Aiyana Stanley-Jones was shot dead where she slept because police did not obtain detailed enough information about the residence. Charges were filed against the officer who shot her, but were later dropped. One should not hold a policeman repsonsible for the reckless behavior of lawmakers who authorized "no-knock" SWAT raids for drugs.
It would be natural to surmise that this violent and risky SWAT procedure would only be used in extreme situations. That's not the case. The no-knock raid which disfigured the baby in Georgia was over a $50 methamphetamine deal, and again, incredibly poor information given to the SWAT team prior to the raid. The alleged dealer wasn't at the residence, nor did he live there.
The "no-knock" drug raid is just one example of our police becoming more militarized due to the War on Drugs. Starting in 1990, the government's "1033 Program" allwed local law enforcemnt to acquire surplus military vehicles and equipment. In 1996, these military items were authorized to be used in drug cases.
Countless tons of illegal narcotics have been seized, yet we haven't put a noticeable dent into the drug trade. There's always a new drug dealer to replace the old. It's a constantly revolving cycle that helps the gangs and prison industry rake in profits, and taxpayers are left to foot the bill.
Criminals have been given an endless, tax-free revenue stream. Is it any wonder why impoverished communities have so many gangs? When people are poor, and legal opportunities are scarce or nonexistent, mass desperation ensues. Parents need to support their children. Leaving so many drugs available to the black market has given rise to gangs and drug cartels, who use desperate people to do the dirty work. The Mexican cartels are now operating in most major U.S. cities. Data shows that the drug trade is dominated by almost one million gang members in 20,000 gangs across the country. Perhaps if we shift to a "War on Gangs" mentality, we'd have made a better impact on drug use as well as gun violence. Instead, people are often jailed who are in no way part of the gangs/cartels. Too often, police focus on arresting addicts and low-level dealers. Fear of arrest prevents addicts from seeking help, as well as reporting cases of overdose.
We are the world's leading jailer. Not only do we need to reduce the number of prisoners, we need to reduce the number of ways in which someone can land in prison or on probation. The intense focus on drug-related offenses has made it even more difficult for an over-burdened criminal justice system to catch and prosecute violent criminals. Roughly 40% of murders, 60% of rapes, and 90% of burglaries go unsolved.
Over half of all people in federal prison are there for drug offenses. The prison population graph in this Wikipedia article shows that a sharp increase occurred shortly after 1980 and reached its peak before the year 2010. The early 1980's was the era when former President Ronald Reagan and (at the time) Senator Joe Biden kicked the War on Drugs into overdrive. The idea to arrest our way out of the drug problem has obviously failed. Housing one person in prison costs over $25,000 a year on average.
On a national scale, the families of prisoners are left to suffer their own punishment, such as financial hardship, loss of property through civil asset forfeiture, and even the loss of children to the state.
Civil asset forfeiture laws allow authorities to seize the property of someone who is only suspected--not even charged or convicted--of a crime, often related to drugs. This policy, by its very nature, has led to cases of severe abuse by allowing such broad discretion to authorities. Thanks to the War on Drugs, those traveling with a large amount of cash are at risk of police assuming the cash is being used to buy illegal narcotics. As mentioned in the above link, police may fail to report a defendant's testimony in order to aid the forfeiture process. The case that intensified the calls to end civil asset forfeiture was that of a Philadelphia couple who had their home seized because their 22-year-old son had dealt $40 worth of heroin to an undercover informant. The homeowners themselves were obviously innocent.
Civil asset forfeiture laws create a "Policing for Profit" atmosphere. Alleged "drug dealers" can still permanently lose their property even when charges are dismissed. In a case where $29,000 worth of marijuana was seized, police took over $300,000 from college students at Texas Christian University, and only a few students were actually convicted. Some students were able to get their property back, but not without several months of waiting and paying thousands of dollars. Police and district attorneys in Texas used some of the money gained from civil asset forfeiture for frivolous purchases like vacations and margarita machines!
The War on Drugs has bred corruption in local, state, and even Federal law enforcement agencies. Drugs were planted on innocent people in Camden, New Jersey, by several bad cops in 2010. The 88 innocent defendants served a combined 109 years in prison. That's just one large-scale case, but there are more bad cops than one might think. The website stopthedrugwar.org features several "corrupt cop stories" every week! Here's this week's entry. It's quite a mundaine, typical entry compared to others I've read. An officer was conspiring with drug dealers, another officer stole a motorcycle from a drug bust, and also mentioned was a case involving smuggling drugs to prisoners.
On the Federal level, the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) has certainly been embattled lately. Its former chief, the hemp-hating Michele Leonhart, resigned after this sex-party scandal was exposed, involving drug cartels buying prostitutes for DEA agents. Apparently, it's rather difficult to lose your job if you're employed there. The DEA's Board of Professional Misconduct recommended that 50 agents be fired since 2010, and only 13 were fired. Some of those were back on the job due to appeals. The DEA is one of several U.S. bureaucracies whose main function is to keep the War on Drugs as cruel and ineffective as possible.
Speaking of cruelty, here's a case that should bring into question the morality and integrity of allowing privately owned prisons, or "Prisons for Profit". Two Pennsylvania judges were found guilty of taking $2 million in bribes from the builders of two Pensyllvania juvenile detention facilities. The judges routinely gave out harsh punishments to first-time juvenile offenders in order to fill the prison cells. Some kids were as young as 10.
As of 2010, there are over 2.7 million children in the United States who have a parent in prison compared to about 350,000 in the 1970's. Children in these homes are more suspect to anxiety, depression, aggressive behavior, and eventually being incarcerated themselves.
The War on Drugs is a trillion-dollar catastrophe, but does that figure really take all variables into account?
To calculate the real cost of the War on Drugs, as with some other law enforcement statistics, is difficult. Statistics cannot measure the financial hardship the family of someone convicted of drug possession will endure. How much more government assistance is given out because a father is now in jail for several years for low-level drug dealing? How much profit is lost from local businesses when the families of customers can no longer afford to spend money there?
African Americans are arrested at a far higher rate than whites for drug offenses, and studies show that they use most drugs at the same rate or less than whites. One in four African American children born in 1990 had a parent in prison compared to one in 25 caucasian children.
Racial bias has been a major driving force of the War on Drugs. In the words of H. R. Halderman, Richard Nixon's Chief of Staff, “[T]he whole problem is really the blacks. The key is to devise a system that recognizes this while not appearing to.” The rate of poverty for African American children is higher than it was before Nixon declared drugs "Public Enemy #1". We didn't improve the ghettos by arresting so many low-level drug offenders. Four out of five arrests are for possession and not sales. It's no secret that the Drug War has targeted young African Americans. Still, there's more to all of this than just racism.
It's also about greed and lust for power. The prison industry requres a steady population of slave labor to inexpensively manufacture items. Private prisons are in agreements with household names like McDonalds, Victoria's Secret, and WalMart. Two prisoners claimed they were "hired" to replace "Made in Honduras" tags with "Made in USA". For divulging this information, they were sent to solitary confinement. In 1993, the communications giant AT&T laid off thousands of its telephone operators and replaced them with cheap prison labor! Prisoners are manufacturing just about every type of product imagineable. In its current form, the War on Drugs will continue to allow for an economy to be largely influenced by prison profiteers--in a free country.
It's clear that police unions who thrive off civil asset forfeiture, the prison industry executives who profit from cells being filled, and corporations who are addicted to cheap labor do not want common-sense changes to the War on Drugs. The rest of us suffer the consequences, whether we do drugs or not.
The Drug War is a tool used to erode civil liberties on levels I haven't even described yet in this written entry. I have much reason to believe that the War on Drugs is also spearheading a movement to eliminate the privacy of citizens in the name of "fighting terrorism". As I've written before, the Patriot Act is used mostly for drug cases, not terrorism. From October 1, 2009 to September 30, 2010, less than 1% of Patriot Act requests was for actual terrorism. And 3,034 out of 3,970 total Patriot Act requests were for drug cases. Since 2010, even less of a percentage of Patriot Act requests were used for terrorism, and the number of times it's been used for narcotic cases has increased sharply. In 2013, the Patriot Act was used in drug cases over 9,000 times. Concerned citizens like myself have always warned that the Patriot Act was worded in such a way that could make anyone a terrorist, depending on who is in power.
So, take what i've written about the War on Drugs, and think about every brutal, deadly, ineffective, liberty-killing, and corrupt aspect I've mentioned. Think about global warfare and a prison system that needs crime levels to stay high to maintain its cheap labor. Think about the reckless SWAT tactics--and the mandatory minimum prison sentences destroying families just because someone possessed personal amounts of drugs. And don't forget the racism and corruption that is rooted in our justice system. Even if you don't have much compassion for drug useres, realize how much it has cost you as a taxpayer to put government and law enforcement in charge of a situation--drug use--that they're not equipped to handle.
Now, realize that one "drug" in particular is the reason why the War on Drugs has been such a miserable failure all these years. We've employed all of these reckless global and national strategies to deal with a versatile plant--that prohibitionists would like you to call "marijuana".
The next entry will discuss the cannabis issue in detail.