Wednesday, April 23, 2008

D.A.R.E. to Be Stupid

A personal blog post is coming up, but I just wanted to bring your attention, quickly, to this disturbing article in the Times today. Apparently, the U.S. has more prisoners than any other country in the world, and in fact ONE QUARTER of all imprisoned people are U.S. prisoners. Um. This is really fucked up. Especially when you cross-compare that statistic with this factoid from Human Rights Watch:

"Perhaps the single greatest force behind the growth of the prison population has been the national 'war on drugs.' The number of incarcerated drug offenders has increased twelvefold since 1980. In 2000, 22 percent of those in federal and state prisons were convicted on drug charges."

I have two brief anecdotes to relate here. 1) I know a federal judge clerk. She has been having trouble with her job because the majority of the cases her judge prosecutes are drug-related. She's literally seen people put away for their natural lives for selling weed. These people are mostly black, even though the state she works in is one of the whitest states in the country.

2) I know of someone whose brother is dying. Her brother lives in another state and has cancer that will kill him. Right now, the concern is making the brother as comfortable as possible for the rest of his life which is a matter of days or weeks, not months. The only thing that keeps the brother relatively pain-free, conscious, and able to eat, is weed. This law-abiding family now smuggles drugs across state lines in order to bring some comfort to their dying son.

I've been beating this drum since I was in high school. But the issue's been coming up a lot lately in my life and my friends' lives and I just don't understand why we can't put the dogma aside and actually just agree that drug laws in general and marijuana laws in particular are not just backward and unfair and fucked, but also they are probably creating a culture of incarceration that further disenfranchises enormous numbers of people. Specifically, black people.

Furthermore, they make criminals out of people of all colors, who are just trying to lead normal, non-criminal lives, doing their best to get by.

Along those lines, I wonder about this quote pulled from the Times article:

"There is little question that the high incarceration rate here has helped drive down crime, though there is debate about how much."

The article later cites studies and quote judges, but it also points out that there are counterstudies and counterarguments to this assertion. Interestingly, the article doesn't address an issue that social scientists often debate: that excessive and inappropriately harsh (three strikes laws, anyone?) punishments may actually *create* criminals by creating a culture of incarceration. Also, as the article points out, America's nonviolent crime punishments are far more severe than in other countries. It's a simple equation really: You want to make more criminals? Make more felony-count laws or re-dedicate yourself to enforcing the laws that are already there.

Anyway, you should read the Times article. It's an alarming reminder that no matter how progressive America may seem at this political moment in time, it's all just window dressing. The infrastructure of the country is actually quite medieval. And not in a sexy, Excalibur sort of way.