These developments not only reflect a shifting public opinion on the truth about our nation’s racially biased drug war, but, as Rosenberg Foundation President Tim Silard recently said, they also reflect the fact that “Decades after the start of the so-called ‘tough on crime’ era, the U.S. slowly seems to be inching away from the failed policies that have made it the world’s largest incarcerator (the U.S. has five percent of the world’s population and about 25 percent of the world’s prisoners).” Even so, we must remain cautiously optimistic. Indeed, The New Jim Crow Author Michelle Alexander reminds us, near the end of her book, that:
If we hope to end this system of control, we cannot be satisfied with a handful of reforms. All of the financial incentives granted to law enforcement to arrest poor black and brown people for drug offenses must be revoked. Federal grant money for drug enforcement must end; drug forfeiture laws must be stripped from the books; racial profiling must be eradicated; the concentration of drug busts in poor communities of color must cease; and the transfer of military equipment and aid to local law enforcement agencies waging the drug war must come to a screeching halt. And that’s just for starters.
“Equally important, there must be a change within the culture of law enforcement. Black and brown people in ghetto communities must no longer be viewed as the designated enemy, and ghetto communities must no longer be treated like occupied zones. Law enforcement must adopt a compassionate, humane approach to the problems of the urban poor — an approach that goes beyond the rhetoric of ‘community policing’ to a method of engagement that promotes trust, healing, and genuine partnership. Data collection for police and prosecutors should be mandated nationwide to ensure that selective enforcement is no longer taking place. Racial impact statements that assess the racial and ethnic impact of criminal justice legislation must be adopted. Public defender offices should be funded at the same level as prosecutor’s offices to eliminate the unfair advantage afforded the incarceration machine. The list goes on: Mandatory drug sentencing laws must be rescinded. Marijuana ought to be legalized (and perhaps other drugs as well). Meaningful re-entry programs must be adopted — programs that provide a pathway not just to dead-end, minimum-wage jobs, but also training and education so those labeled criminals can realistically reach for high-paying jobs and viable, rewarding career paths. Prison workers should be retrained for jobs and careers that do not involve caging human beings. Drug treatment on demand must be provided for all Americans, a far better investment of taxpayer money than prison cells for drug offenders. Barriers to re-entry, specifically the myriad laws that operate to discriminate against drug offenders for the rest of their lives in every aspect of their social, economic, and political life, must be eliminated.
This is not to say that movement building and reform work is mutually exclusive. In fact, as Alexander puts it, “reform work is the work of movement building, provided that it is done consciously as movement-building work.” That said, the foregoing reforms are significant, and would not be possible without the multi-faceted, sacrificing, tireless, and creative pressure and advocacy that many of us continue to provide. As the late Robert F. Kennedy reminds us, “Few will have the greatness to bend history, but each of us can work to change a small portion of the events, and the total — all of these acts — will be written in the history of this generation.”
So, as we look toward next month’s National Month of Resistance to Mass Incarceration (see No. 20 in Part 4), we must (1) support or start local efforts to decriminalize marijuana (by working with the Drug Policy Alliance, Criminal Justice Policy Foundation, Marijuana Policy Project, and/or National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws); (2) support or start local efforts to “ban the box” (see No. 19 in Part 4); and (3) support or start local efforts to aid prisoner (community) reentry (i.e. the release and reintegration of the disproportionately black and brown casualties of the drug war; this is the work that Michelle Alexander has aptly called the “underground railroad” work of the anti-mass incarceration movement) like the first-rate work that former drug war convict turned attorney, Daryl Atkinson is doing with the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, the work the North Carolina Second Chance Alliance does, and that of the New Southern Strategy Coalition.
But while we do this local work, we can and must also (1) contact and lobby our congressmen (who returned to work last week) to support the proposed legislation listed above (the Smarter Sentencing Act, the Civil Rights Voting Restoration Act, and the REDEEM Act), and (2) demand that they go even further (in terms of the collateral consequences faced by ex-offenders, the decriminalization of marijuana, Alexander’s aforementioned prescriptions, etc.), (3) rewarding and punishing them accordingly as we head to the polls this November.
As we face the rugged terrain ahead, our marching orders must be the sobering words that speak presciently from the grave of the late Coretta Scott King: “Struggle is a never ending process. Freedom is never really won, you earn it and win it in every generation.”