Last week Attorney General Eric Holder announced a plan to reduce sentences for certain drug offences—a crucial move since as a country, America locks up more of its own people than any other (yes, even more than China or Iran).
Addiction and Jail Time
Of course the two million prison population is mostly made up of blacks and Hispanics who may be in for any number of crimes, including robbing old ladies, bank jobs or smuggling. But the real reason that the US has the largest prison population in the world is because of its addiction to drugs.
Since the 1980’s, the policy on drug addiction has been to “just say no” and “If you do the crime, you do the time.” Clearly this doesn’t work. Or to clarify: The policy of locking up addicts is working spectacularly well for the industry that profits from it—meaning we, the taxpayers, are the ones funding it. It certainly doesn’t work for the addicts or their families or the people affected by drug-related crimes—not when they’re sent to jail and not when they’re in there and paid as little as 16 cents an hour. According to the Federal Bureau of Prisons, half of prisoners are incarcerated for non-violent drug related offenses and have been convicted for possessing microscopic amounts of drugs.
The Problem with Imprisoned Addicts
The prison system as it stands just keeps perpetuating the myth that drug addicts are bad people who lack morals and character. Obviously some drug addicts have committed terrible crimes and there should be consequences, especially for violent crimes. But there’s an enormous number of people locked away who just suffer from a progressive disease that gets worse without treatment. Chronic addiction inevitably leads to even more crime and criminal behavior.
You have to wonder how much longer we can ignore pleas from the United Nations for a change in drug laws that are clearly not working. Last week, a group in the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) announced the release of “groundbreaking recommendations” discouraging criminal sanctions for drug use. “There is simply no good basis in science, health or ethics for bringing someone into the criminal justice system solely for drug possession,” said Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance.
Russell Brand also highlighted this issue when writing about Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s tragic death. He pointed out that current drug laws criminalize people like Hoffman, which in turn ensures the fact that they’ll keep their behavior secret. Brand also focused on the fact that addiction is a mental illness and it’s generally poor addicts who pay the highest price. We’re basically locking up poor people with mental health problems who are self-medicating their symptoms with whatever they can get their hands on. And this is why our prison population has grown exponentially since the 80’s.
Racism and Classism Perpetuated
Now, I have never been to prison or even been arrested. But I’m an addict. What’s the difference between the drug addicts locked away and me? Did I just have better character or know the difference between right and wrong? Of course not. I just never got caught doing anything illegal and I got help for my addiction. I have no doubt that had I not gotten help when I did, I would have been arrested for something eventually.
Of course I’m white and middle class, which helps a lot because no one ever looked at me and thought, Junkie. Party girl maybe, but not looking like a quote-unquote addict certainly helped me avoid being caught with any microscopic amounts of drugs on me. I don’t believe black and Hispanic people use more drugs than white people but I do believe white people have better lawyers.
Locking away people with a disease that’s recognized by the American Medical Association is farcical; thankfully it seems like our Attorney General may have finally caught on to the idea. Imprisoning addicts doesn’t save the taxpayer money; it’s a racist system that creates profits for corporate America. When done right, treatment is far cheaper than incarceration.
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