Are the drug warriors ready to surrender?

August 26, 2015

A number of political leaders have come forward to decry mass incarceration and drug war policies. But the real question is what they will do about it, writes Helen Redmond.

SUDDENLY, SOME of the people responsible for creating the largest penal system the world has even seen and jamming it full with drug law offenders are saying they have regrets--and offering a few modest reforms.

Last month, President Obama granted clemency to 46 nonviolent drug offenders and visited El Reno Federal Correctional Institution in central Oklahoma. After touring the facility, Obama talked to the press about the consequences of the imprisonment boom of the last several decades--and ended his statement with the words, "There but for the grace of God."

As unfamiliar and welcome as it is for the president of the United States to pay attention to the scandal of mass incarceration, his words would have even more resonance if he had visited not the relatively sedate El Reno, but a place like Rikers Island in New York City--a notorious and violent hellhole that houses many of the 2,000 prisoners in the city system who are behind bars because of drug charges.

Days before, Obama made a powerful speech at an NAACP conference that could have taken many of its talking points straight from grassroots criminal justice activists. Obama talked about "structural inequalities," the unfairness of mandatory minimum sentences, "banning the box"--the requirement on job applications to disclose previous convictions--and solitary confinement. Obama stated: "Mass incarceration makes our entire country worse off, and we need to do something about it."

Obama visits a federal prison in El Reno, Oklahoma
Obama visits a federal prison in El Reno, Oklahoma (

Former President Bill Clinton also spoke to the NAACP. "I signed a bill that made the problem worse and I want to admit it," he confessed to the audience. "In that bill there were longer sentences. And most of these people are in prison under state law, but the federal law set a trend. And that was overdone. We were wrong about that."

That's a far cry from 20 years ago, when Clinton and his fellow Democrats pushed through the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 to prove their "tough on crime" credentials in a frenzied competition with Republicans. The legislation, along with another crime bill in 1996, contained some of the most savage punishments for drug offenses ever enacted in the U.S..

Clinton wrapped up his NAACP speech by saying: "Now that the human genome has been sequenced, we know we're all colored people, and it's about time we started acting like it...the advancement of colored people is the advancement of all of us." Clinton--who, according to The New Jim Crow author Michelle Alexander, saw more Black people go to prison during his time in office than any other president--received a standing ovation.

Presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton has also weighed in. On the campaign trail, she called for ending mass incarceration and said, "We don't want to create another incarceration generation."

As an influential Democrat during her husband's administration, Clinton talked tough and endorsed the policies that created that "incarceration generation". In 1994, she declared, "We need more police, we need more and tougher prison sentences for repeat offenders...We need more prisons to keep violent offenders for as long as it takes to keep them off the streets."

Even Republicans like Newt Gingrich are starting to have something to say about the incarceration frenzy. Gingrich recently offered a mea culpa for his role in the passage of the 1994 crime bill. He's now teamed up in a "left-right" alliance with environmental and civil rights advocate Van Jones to call for revamping sentencing rules.

PRESIDENT OBAMA's and the others' critiques of the carceral state are on target, but the real question is whether those directly responsible for mass incarceration will do anything to change the criminal injustice system. Until they do, far-too-late apologies from Bill Clinton or Newt Gingrich shouldn't be accepted--not while 2.2 million people who are disproportionately African American remain behind bars.

It's no exaggeration to say that the crime bill Clinton now says was "wrong" was an all-out war on Black America. Under the drug laws that kicked into high gear during the Clinton era, hundreds of thousands of people were arrested and prosecuted for possessing 5 grams of crack cocaine--the weight of two pennies--were put in overcrowded cages for decades.

The Clinton crime bills tore families and communities apart--and then put 100,000 more police officers on the streets to brutalize and kill those young Black men and women who weren't caught in the dragnet before. A half-hearted sorry now doesn't begin to address the massive damage Clinton caused.

Likewise, Hillary Clinton's newfound concern for the victims of the racist justice system rings hollow, especially given her current occupation: running for president. She knows she needs Black voters to turn out for her--but if she wins the White House, it will be another story.

As for Obama, he is speaking out more than halfway through his second term--after having been notoriously silent on issues related to racism and Black America earlier in his presidency. Concerned about what his legacy will be after having accomplished so little, Obama is now calling for modest reforms. But his administration isn't introducing new legislation to repeal harsh drug laws. Obama instead is waiting for Congress to act--knowing full well that both houses are currently run by Republicans who won't do anything Obama is talking about.

So fiery speeches to the NAACP aside, Obama has no plans to "do something about" mass incarceration.

Some people are pointing to the fact that Obama has now granted clemency to a total of 89 drug law violators as a positive step. It may be in the right direction, but it's a tiny step. To put that number in perspective, there are 95,265 drug offenders serving time in federal prison. A total of 89 clemencies doesn't come close to addressing the crying need to remedy the injustice of sentences shockingly out of proportion to the crime.

The presidents of other countries have let far more drug law violators--from a much smaller prison population--go free. For example, Alan García, the former president of Peru, pardoned 400 convicted drug traffickers.

Each year, thousands of people apply for clemency or a pardon, many of them having already served a decade or more behind bars. This includes prisoners like Sharanda Jones. In 1999, she was found guilty of conspiracy to distribute crack cocaine. She carried a legally purchased firearm for protection, though she had never fired it--yet the gun was used to enhance her sentence. Sharanda, who had no prior arrests, was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole (LWOP).

A NUMBER of factors have coalesced to pressure politicians on both sides of the aisle to reconsider draconian drug laws.

It is an inconvenient truth, but it simply isn't possible to reduce the prison population without eliminating or scaling back drug sentencing laws that impose mandatory minimum terms. These laws are one of the leading drivers of mass incarceration and the main reason prisoners are serving LWOP sentences.

Between 19 and 23 percent of state prisoners and approximately 60 percent of federal prisoners are incarcerated for drug offenses. Of the prisoners serving LWOP for nonviolent offenses nationwide, 79 percent are for nonviolent drug offenses. Of the 2,074 federal prisoners serving LWOP for nonviolent offenses, 96 percent are for nonviolent drug offenses.

Sustained criticism of drug laws and the activism of grassroots organizations have been vital to keeping reform efforts alive. Groups like Families Against Mandatory Minimums and The Sentencing Project have humanized the victims of the drug war, and now, their voices are finally being heard in the mainstream media.

The racism at the core of the war on drugs can no longer be ignored. Civil libertarian organizations like the ACLU, Center for Constitutional Rights and Drug Policy Alliance have filed dozens of lawsuits and produced studies and reports providing irrefutable proof of the racism at every level of the drug war.

For example, one ACLU report, titled "The War on Marijuana in Black and White", documents the staggering racial bias in the enforcement of marijuana laws: Marijuana use is roughly equal among Blacks and whites, yet Blacks are nearly four times more likely to be arrested for pot possession--and the disproportion for prosecution and incarceration under these laws are even higher.

The nationwide crusade against cannabis has resulted in about 40,000 people serving sentences for marijuana offenses--a drug that is now legal in four states and the District of Colombia. If Obama were serious about reducing the prison population and ending racial bias, he could pardon all 40,000 marijuana offenders.

The human toll of these inhuman laws is the greater outrage, but the financial cost is considerable. Billions of dollars are spent on enforcing drug laws and the costs of mass incarceration, which is another reason some political leaders are now willing to support change.

Some states, reeling from budget shortfalls, have begun to view "lock-em-up-and-throw-away-the-key" policies as a waste of taxpayer money. In New York, it costs $60,076 to keep a person in prison for one year. In Louisiana, it costs taxpayers $5 million to keep one LWOP inmate behind bars for life.

So the financial incentive is shifting some politicians' attitudes. But more important has been the explosion of the Black Lives Matter movement onto the national stage.

In the past year, this struggle has dramatically altered the way people view policing and the criminal justice system. The continuing protests against the killing of young, unarmed Black men and the paramilitary response of police have put the drug war under increased scrutiny.

It is the war on drugs that is largely responsible for the militarization of law enforcement, the virtual occupation of Black communities by cops, and the maiming and murder of Black people at epidemic levels. That's why the fight to end the drug war also is a fight to make Black Lives Matter.

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