Opinion

The Great Debate

War on drugs produced swollen prisons and little else

By Zachary Goelman
June 23, 2011

By Zachary Goelman
The opinions expressed are his own.

The vast U.S. criminal justice system is under renewed scrutiny, spurred by two things: the fortieth anniversary of President Nixon’s speech declaring war on drugs, and a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling that California must reduce its overcrowded prisons because conditions in jail constitute “cruel and unusual punishment.”

Much of the debate focuses on how the former produced the latter. The two were neatly tied together by Neill Franklin, the executive director of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, and a former Baltimore police officer. Franklin told CNN:

Despite arresting over 40 million people on drug charges since the start of the war on drugs — resulting in huge costs both in terms of dollars and in human lives — drugs today are more available, more potent and cheaper than ever.

Franklin’s words echo a report by the Global Commission on Drug Policy which stated that the forty-year war on drugs has been an unequivocal failure. Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter endorsed this view in a New York Times op-ed piece on the anniversary of Nixon’s drug war declaration.

These critics share a logic: ineffective drug laws produce little other than an expanding, expensive penal system. A graphic produced by the American Civil Liberties Union presents data of the U.S. prison system, and plainly states, “the war on drugs has helped make the U.S. the world’s largest incarcerator.”
The role and reality of prisons in America is now being contested. Following the Supreme Court ruling on California, other states’ penal systems are under examination. Efforts to ease overcrowding in Nebraska’s prisons, which have hovered near 14o percent capacity for several months, have fallen short of expectations. The Omaha World-Spectator reports that officials in Nebraska hope to see more inmates released on parole:
Bob Houston, state corrections director, remains confident his department can reach a goal of reducing the state’s prison population by 545 inmates, or about 12 percent, over the next two years.
But does releasing convicts from prison imperil public safety? Data from the U.S. government’s Bureau of Justice Statistics show that of 300,000 prisoners released in 15 states, two-thirds were back in jail in less than three years. Recidivism rates were almost twice as high for those arrested for robbery, larceny, auto theft and other property crimes. A recent study in the Boston Globe found more than a third of dangerous Massachusetts felons sentenced to life in prison and released on parole wound up back in jail in less than three years.
The recidivism rate is one of the key criticisms of the penal system, but it’s by no means the only one. In a Washington Post op-ed, Marc Mauer and David Cole published “Five Myths” about prisons and prisoners in the U.S., pointing out failures of penal justice in the U.S.
Their primary contention: that high incarceration rates haven’t lowered crime. Crime rates have dropped precipitously in the U.S. in the last two decades, in tandem with the ballooning number of convicts behind bars. But Mauer and Cole say that the correlation isn’t causal:
In Canada, for example, violent crime declined in the 1990s almost as much as it did in the United States. Yet, Canada’s prison population dropped during this time, and its per capita incarceration rate is about one-seventh that of the United States.
They point to research that shows, at most, incarceration accounted for a quarter of the decline in crime. What caused the rest of the drop?
Maybe it’s the economy, stupid. Over the last two decades, Americans enjoyed increasing prosperity, especially in the decade of the 1990′s when employment expanded, government revenues rose and GDP climbed higher. The drop in crime across the country turned previously-perceived dangerous cities like New York into tourist Meccas and capitals of residential revitalization.
But then the economy tanked in 2008. The recovery has been slow and painful, and unemployment still hovers at agonizingly high levels, yet crime rates have remained low. “Steady Decline in Crime Baffles Experts,” read a piece in the New York Times.
 

But that depends on which experts you ask. It’s simplistic and naive to assume crime rates “rise and fall in lock-step with poverty rates and unemployment,” says Andrew Karmen, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice.
“Such an obvious direct relationship has never been claimed by criminologists,” Karmen wrote in an e-mail. He’s the author of “New York Murder Mystery,” a book attempting to uncover the true reasons behind the city’s dramatic drop in crime. A sizeable chunk of the book criticizes claims of credit made by the city’s police department, and boasts by former mayor Rudy Giuliani.
The streets of some U.S. cities are safer than they’ve been in forty years, since the declaration of the “war on drugs,” but the reason for that remains a puzzle.
Writing in Reason Magazine, policy analyst and investigative journalist Radley Balko looks at the theories and data, and concludes:

[i]t could be that we have less crime now not because of any brilliant anti-crime initiatives dreamed up by academics and politicians but because civil society has quietly churned out benefits independent of those policies.

Echoing the critiques of Neill Franklin and Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, Balko says, “maybe the real lesson of the last two decades is that anti-crime policies at best have little effect on the crime rate. When you factor in the drug war, they may make it worse.”

But despite the essays, letters and critiques challenging the U.S. criminal justice system, there aren’t any signs of change at the government level. The closest direct exchange on the subject came when U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder expressed his love for the critically-acclaimed HBO crime drama “The Wire,” a five-season epic about drugs, enforcement and the urban ghetto that ended in 2008. Holder publicly asked the show’s creator to produce another season or a movie.
David Simon, the creator, retorted that he’d do so if the Department of Justice would, in exchange, “address its continuing prosecution of our misguided, destructive, and dehumanizing drug prohibition.”
No word yet from Holder on whether a deal has been struck.
Comments
5 comments so far | RSS Comments RSS

Some simple facts:

* A rather large majority of people will always feel the need to use drugs, such as heroin, opium, nicotine, amphetamines, alcohol, sugar, or caffeine.

* Due to Prohibition, the availability of mind-altering drugs has become so universal and unfettered, that in any city of the civilized world, any one of us would be able to procure practically any drug we wish within an hour.

* The massive majority of people who use drugs do so recreationally – getting high at the weekend then up for work on a Monday morning.

* A small minority of people will always experience drug use as problematic.

* Throughout history, the prohibition of any mind-altering substance has always exploded usage rates, overcrowded jails, fueled organized crime, created rampant corruption of law-enforcement, even whole governments, and induced an incalculable amount of suffering and death.

* It’s not even possible to keep drugs out of prisons, but prohibitionists wish to waste hundreds of billions of our money in an utterly futile attempt to keep them off our streets.

* Prohibition kills more people and ruins more lives than the prohibited drugs have ever done.

* The United States jails a larger percentage of it’s own citizens than any other country in the world, including those run by the worst totalitarian regimes.

* The urge to save humanity is almost always a false-face for the urge to rule it.
- H. L. Mencken (1880-1956) American editor, essayist and philologist.

* In ‘the land formally known as free’, all citizens have been stripped of their 4th amendment rights and are now totally subordinate to a corporatized, despotic government with a heavily armed and corrupt, militarized police force whose often deadly intrusions into their homes and lives are condoned by an equally corrupt and spineless judiciary.

* As with torture, prohibition is a grievous crime against humanity. If you support it, or even simply tolerate it by looking the other way while others commit it, you are an accessory to a very serious moral transgression against humanity.

* America re-legalized certain drug use in 1933. The drug was alcohol, and the 21st amendment re-legalized its production, distribution and sale. Both alcohol consumption and violent crime dropped immediately as a result, and, very soon after, the American economy climbed out of that same prohibition engendered abyss into which it had previously been pushed.

Posted by malcolmkyle | Report as abusive
 

On June 17, 1971, President Nixon told Congress that “if we cannot destroy the drug menace in America, then it will surely destroy us.” However, after forty years of trying to destroy “the drug menace in America” we still *haven’t* been able to destroy it and it still *hasn’t* destroyed us. Four decades is ample enough time to realize that on this important issue President Nixon wrong! All actions taken as a result of his invalid and paranoid assumptions (e.g. the federal marijuana prohibition) should be ended immediately!

It makes no sense for taxpayers to fund the federal marijuana prohibition when it *doesn’t* prevent people from using marijuana and it *does* make criminals incredibly wealthy and incite the Mexican drug cartels to murder thousands of people every year.

We need legal adult marijuana sales in supermarkets, gas stations and pharmacies for exactly the same reason that we need legal alcohol and tobacco sales – to keep unscrupulous black-market criminals out of our neighborhoods and away from our children. Marijuana must be made legal to sell to adults everywhere that alcohol and tobacco are sold.

Posted by jway | Report as abusive
 

The prison system in the U.S. is a large industry. As such if it were to decline in size there would be a negative impact to the economy. Illinois prisons, for example, contract much of the clothing, food, services and supplies that are needed for inmates, employees and infrastructure. A reduction in prison population size would cause contractors to be dropped and employees to lose as much as 40% of their salary because of lost overtime. Closing prisons would also dislocate families or cause people to find other work nearby as they have family and roots in their communities. In a depressed economy such scenarios are politically unthinkable. The response from governments has been to spend less on rehabilitation, healthcare, nutrition, clothing for inmates as well as staff.

The result of these some of these conditions and many more have kept law enforcement unions and some criminal attorney groups fighting for more laws to “cleanup” our society, not less. They argue the need to keep prisons and courts open. One can see similar parallels in the “Military Industrial Congressional Complex” that Eisenhower warned of in his farewell address to the Union.

We are a violent society and I am not arguing for closing all prisons. Remember we will kill more of our own citizens this year with hand guns alone than the rest of the industrialized world will in the next decade. Still I take pause to consider the lessons of Prohibition. Legalizing certain products and activities will reduce violent crime just as in the 1930s. Tax revenues increased allowing for regulation of alcohol(distillery safety) and reduced the cost of law enforcement for many depression era governments. These are facts a prudent governing body should consider and then educate their constituencies about.

I am a former Correctional officer who was run out for my views regarding this subject. I spent over ten years in DOC. I escorted inmates to court, physicians and halfway houses. I was mandated to work 16 hour days in inmate housing units two or three times a week only to return in less than eight hours, for months on end. There is clearly more to crime and punishment than building prisons. Sadly I believe incarcerating a lot of people has become more about economics and little to do with justice.

Posted by coyotle | Report as abusive
 

The War On Drugs was never meant to be won. Only sustained. It is big, big business for drug producers and traffickers, law enforcement, the courts, corporate prisons, and corporations that manufacture all the military and surveillance hardware used by all parties in this madness.

Anyone who thinks the War On Drugs can be “won” need only look as far as Mexico where the War has undermined Mexican sovereignty, corrupted the political system, and militarized the country. It’s also resulted in the violent deaths of tens of thousands of mostly poor civilians.

Posted by GetpIaning | Report as abusive
 

war is the drug,for the financial system of government.

Posted by dave717 | Report as abusive
 

Post Your Comment

We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see http://blogs.reuters.com/fulldisclosure/2010/09/27/toward-a-more-thoughtful-conversation-on-stories/
  •