Post by SCSJ Staff Attorney Daryl Atkinson
Time to End the War on Drugs
In a speech to the American Bar Association on August 12, 2013 Attorney General Eric Holder stressed the need to end mass incarceration, alleviate racial disparities in the criminal justice system, and reduce mandatory minimum sentences for many people convicted of nonviolent drug crimes. As the most prominent prosecutor in the country Attorney General Holder criticized the wisdom of policies that have led to America becoming the world’s leading jailer. “It’s clear—as we come together today—that too many Americans go to too many prisons for far too long, and for no truly good law enforcement reason.” Although incarceration has a significant role to play in our justice system, widespread incarceration at the federal, state, and local levels is both ineffective and unsustainable. It imposes a significant economic burden—totaling $80 billion in 2010 alone—and it comes with human and moral costs that are impossible to calculate.”
Attorney General Holder, like President Obama, has expressed a willingness to address the stark racial disparities in the criminal system. “Right now, unwarranted disparities are far too common. As President Obama said last month, it’s time to ask tough questions about how we can strengthen our communities, support young people, and address the fact that young black and Latino men are disproportionately likely to become involved in our criminal justice system—as victims as well as perpetrators. We also must confront the reality that-once they’re in that system—people of color often face harsher punishments than their peers. One deeply troubling report, released in February, indicates that—in recent years—black male offenders have received sentences nearly 20 percent longer than those imposed on white males convicted of similar crimes. This isn’t just unacceptable—it is shameful.”
Attorney General Holder went on to announce a modification in Justice Department’s charging policies for non-violent drug crimes, which is meant to avoid triggering mandatory minimums, because he realizes these draconian sanctions are counter-productive. “We will start by fundamentally rethinking the notion of mandatory minimums sentences for drug-related crimes. Because they often generate unfairly long sentences, they breed disrespect for the system. When applied indiscriminately, they do not serve public safety. They—and some of the enforcement priorities we have set—have had a destabilizing effect on particular communities, largely poor and of color. ” A major motivation for Attorney General Holder’s new “smart on crime” approach is the fact that although the U.S. has only 5 percent of the world’s population, it has almost 25 percent of its prisoners. Another incentive may be the potential for increased bipartisan support of drug policy reform.
But What Can We Do at the Local Level?
While Attorney General Holder’s comments come as good news, this is all happening at the highest levels of government and will take a long time to trickle down to those of us working on the ground with people who are the victims of America’s “War on Drugs.” Here at the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, we work with individuals facing the lifelong collateral consequences of drug convictions. We know that federal policies have real-life consequences for the communities we love and support. So how do we make Attorney General Holder’s statements make a difference here and now for the people and communities where we live and work?
- Make marijuana possession a Lowest Law Enforcement Priority (LLEP) –Local police departments have limited resources which forces them to prioritize which crimes they pursue, and which they do not. The Durham police department should make low-level drug crimes, such as possession of marijuana, a Lowest Law Enforcement Priority, which will allow the department to re-allocate resources currently spent on apprehension of low-level drug offenders toward the apprehension of serious violent criminals.
- End racial profiling and selective drug enforcement— America is a country that champions equal protection and application of the law but currently in North Carolina this is not happening in many areas of the state. For example, in Durham, NC blacks are 162% percent more likely to be searched incident to a routine traffic violation than whites, and blacks are 400% more likely to be arrested for possession of marijuana than whites even though usage rates of the drug are roughly the same. Concerned citizens in Durham should demand that our elected officials reform and strengthen the Durham Civilian Review Board so law enforcement can be held accountable by an independent body that truly represents the interest of Durham citizens.
- Local prosecutors should adopt pre-charge diversion policies for young people who commit non-violent crimes–North Carolina is one of only two states in the country that prosecutes 16 and 17 year olds as adults. Studies have shown that criminalizing young people at an early age hurts their future employment, housing, and educational opportunities. Diverting more young people away from ever getting involved with the criminal justice system is good public policy that will make our communities stronger and safer.
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