Editorial: One in Thirty-Five 8/21/98

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A report released this week by the Bureau of Justice Statistics shows that one out of every thirty-five American adults is either in prison or jail, on probation or parole. After three decades of lock-em-up drug policy, of street sweeps and the chipping away of constitutional protections, of hard time for marijuana users and jail rather than treatment for the addicted, we have arrived at the point where fully one in thirty-five of us is under the "supervision" of the criminal justice system. At what point, exactly, does a society qualify as a police state?

In 1972, there were approximately 200,000 incarcerates in the U.S. Today that number is fast approaching 2 million. And the prison boom continues. Has any of this made drugs less available to our kids? Has it forced up the price of cocaine? Driven down the purity of the heroin that is sold on our streets? No. In fact, by any of these indicators drugs are far more available today than they have ever been. In fact, we can't even keep them away from the people whom we've locked up, as drugs run rampant throughout our prisons.

One in 35. And that doesn't even tell the whole story. If that number were further broken down, we'd find that the proportion of American males under supervision is more than one in twenty, of African American men, more than one in nine, and of young African American men, more than one in three. And apparently, our esteemed leaders are not done yet.

During the 1996 Presidential campaign, Republican nominee Bob Dole took President Clinton to task for being "soft on drugs." No matter that no president had ever spent so much on enforcement, no matter that arrest rates were already at their highest levels in history, no matter that prisons were being built around the country at an astounding rate: "If you elect Bob Dole, we'll have a real drug war in America."

Today, Dole's successors in the Republican leadership have done him proud. They have a plan to "win" the drug war in four years. They want to make it impossible for anyone with a drug conviction, no matter how trivial, to receive financial aid for college. They want to institute the death penalty for increasing numbers of drug crimes, and they want to imprison as many people, doctors and patients included, as humanly possible in an effort to prove, once and for all, that we can, in fact, arrest and terrorize our way out of our drug problem. Oh, and the Democrats? Their platform differs only in the details.

When is it enough? How many people do we have to imprison to "win" the drug war? One in twenty-five Americans? One in twenty? One in ten? In cities such as Washington, DC, fully half of all young African American men are "in the system." But Washington is not "drug free". Nowhere near. Will two out of three do it? Three out of four? All of them?

Is there no other way for an ostensibly free society to deal with the issues surrounding substance use and abuse? Is it, as our leaders would have us believe, the responsible thing to do: criminalizing personal choice and addiction, creating black markets which are not only criminal in their own right but which also drive up rates of property crime in service to artificially inflated prices, teaching our children that the way to a safer society is to continue to raise the number of people in cages? Have we, as a society, decided that gulags are preferable to the vagaries and pitfalls of liberty?

Today, in America, the land of the free, one in every thirty-five adults is either in prison or jail, on probation or parole. Our leaders scoff at the efforts of other nations to find non-punitive ways to deal with their drug problems, calling them "irresponsible" and "disastrous." But what is the adjective to describe our own transformation into a nation of jailers? Would the great leaders of our past, Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, Frederick Douglas, John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King, believe that mass incarceration was the appropriate response to our current problems? To any problem of which they could conceive? Would the leaders of today have the courage, the gall to look any one of those great men in the eye and explain to him why this is the course we have chosen for America? One in thirty-five... and rising. Now tell us, mighty drug warriors, where do we go from here?

Adam J. Smith
Associate Director

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Issue #55, 8/21/98 Prison, Probation and Parole Populations Growing Rapidly | American Psychological Association Calls for Repeal of Mandatory Minimums | Conference: Beyond the Prison Industrial Complex, Berkeley, CA 25-Sep - 27-Sep | Giuliani Carries out Methadone Threat | Methadone Conferences Coming Up -- In New York! | Report: Marijuana Prohibition Has Not Curtailed Marijuana Use by Adolescents | West Australia Decriminalizes Marijuana On Trial Basis | Peter McWilliams Released on Bond | War on Drugs Blamed for Lapse in Ethical Standards of Federal Prosecutors | Driving While Black: Legislative Alert from the American Civil Liberties Union | Editorial: One in Thirty-Five
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