By: India McGee
“I have one goal and one objective, and that is to stop the pushing of drugs and to protect the innocent victim.”- Nelson Rockefeller Nelson Rockefeller, former governor of New York during the 1950’s until the early 1970’s, spearheaded the implementation of harsh penalties for drug possession.
The implementation of such draconian consequences, led by Governor Rockefeller, for drug possession was eventually followed suit by both, States and the federal government. The consequences applied to both drug addicts and drug traffickers. According to Brian Mann’s article, The Drug Laws that Changed How we Punish, “Rockefeller drug laws,” placed even low-level criminals behind bars for decades. Drug distributors received a “life sentence, without parole and no probation,” under Rockefeller (Mann, Brian). Forty years later, thanks to Rockefeller as well as The War on Drugs, the United States has the highest level of incarceration compared to any other country in the world. The ramifications of such harsh laws are now starting to catch up to many States and also the federal government. The consequences, impact both federal and State economies as well as, marginalized neighborhoods, and race relations within the United States. In addition, there has been an unprecedented amount of over-crowded jails and prisons. Also, due to severe punishments from drug laws there has been an erosion of the United States civil liberties and civil rights. Thus, drug laws should be changed. Instead of focusing on giving harsh penalties, the State and federal government should employ their efforts into providing economic opportunities for first time drug trafficking offenders.
As stated by the American Civil Liberties Union’s (ACLU) article, Drug Sentencing and Penalties, “25% of the 2.3 million people behind bars, are locked up for drug offenses.” Of that 25%, two-thirds of all persons in prison for drug offenses are people of color (The Sentencing Project Home). This statistic refers to the racial disparity that minorities face when it pertains to distributing drugs. The issue with drug laws are not that drug possessors are being incarcerated for distributing drugs, but, instead the penalties that are being imposed on drug possessors are often times too harsh and they are mostly hindering a certain race and socio-economic class of people. Drug laws are applied to more minorities, meaning black and Latino population, at a greater rate compared to their white counterparts. According to the ACLU, “Blacks are incarcerated on drug charges at a 10 times greater rate than whites and they tend to serve a 20% longer sentence,” (Statement of American civil liberties Union…). Furthermore, majority of the offenders that are sentenced due to drug laws “are not high-level actors in the drug trade and often times have no criminal record for a violent offense,” (The Sentencing Project Home). In addition, after these offenders have served their sentence, when they are released from prison, they often times have no means of making an income due to their criminal record along with many companies maintaining a stigmatized belief regarding former criminals.
Also, another major issue with the United States drug laws is that many States as well as the federal government impose the three-strikes you’re out approach. The three-strikes approach places repeat drug trafficking offenders in prison for life after their third offense. With the impact of drug laws mostly affecting blacks and latinos males compared to white males, as well as other ramifications such as their marginalized neighborhoods, the drug laws could be labeled as a systematic approach of racism.
Therefore, in order to decrease all of the negative ramifications that drug laws impose on States and the federal government, the root of the issue needs to be addressed and provided with a solution. A core reason why criminals resort to criminal activity is due to a lack of economic empowerment. Many drug offenders come from impoverished areas, where there is a lack of resources available. Many of the jobs that are at their disposal are minimum wage paying jobs. Frankly, no one can truly survive off of minimum wage. Even though, drug laws hinder mostly blacks and latinos, there is a greater societal issue at play, meaning, economic opportunity.
Stifled economic opportunity cannot coexist with the expectation that there will be no type of illegal activity to come into play. If the government would like to curb the war on drugs then it should foster a society in which there is greater economic opportunity for everyone and especially for the working class citizen.
Furthermore, although many State and federal governments are rolling back drug trafficker’s sentences, due to passage of laws such as the Fair Sentencing Act, these laws do not address the root of the issue which is, economic poverty. The Fair Sentencing Act barely grasp the issue by reducing the sentencing disparity between offenses for crack and powder cocaine from 100:1 to 18:1 (The Fair Sentencing Act). However, the Fair Sentencing Act addresses one step out of multiple steps in the problem, which is racial disparity. The Fair Sentencing Act does not give former convicts of drug trafficking the proper resources to thrive and become productive citizens contributing to the economy after they have been released. Often, when prisoners of all criminal backgrounds are released they are almost forced back into engaging in criminal activity because they cannot obtain employment due to their criminal record. Thus, to fix this pertinent issue, proposed is The Second Chance Program, which will give first time offenders of drug trafficking a grace period.
The mission of the Second Chance Program is to provide a second chance to individuals whom chose the wrong path in life via distributing drugs. The goal of The Second Chance Program is to empower and uplift those who deem illegal activities as the only means to survival, and give them a fresh start in life. The Second Chance Program hopes to foster upright citizens who will be productive and contribute to their community and society. The Second Chance Program would eliminate the prison sentence for first time drug trafficker offenders who are also not being charged with any additional crimes, and, in return they must complete a list of requirements. To forgo their prison sentence, the offender must report to their assigned counselor as needed. Additionally, the first requirement for the offenders is to receive an educational degree, be it a high school GED, if this is the case they must continue their education either at a vocational school or a public or private university, vocational training or higher education. The offender can also choose to be in school either part-time or full-time. If they are part-time due to work or home purposes they must provide documentation to a counselor who will track their progress. The offender would also have to document their grades, maintaining a C’ average or higher, and receipt of their awarded degree to their counselor as well. Furthermore, in order for their record to be expunged the offender would have to maintain full-time employment after receiving their degree for a minimum of 5 years. This will also be documented to their assigned counselor. If the offender fails to meet any of the requirements listed above, then they will be required to finish out the totality of their prison sentence. The Second Chance Program would result in the offender following a straight and narrow path and hopefully, deter them from engaging in criminal activity. The Second Chance Program should be used as a saving grace for first time offenders.
Additionally, The Second Chance Program is needed because it would not only give first time drug offenders a second chance but also, it would decrease the already over-crowded prisons. According to Brian Mann, “half a million Americans (48%) are serving long sentences for nonviolent drug offenses.” America’s vast prison complex costs it’s citizens “between $63 billion and $75 billion a year,” (Mann, Brian). Obviously, the war on drugs initiated by
Rockefeller, is futile and completely ineffective. It is due time that the State’s and Federal government abolish these unfair, unjust and outdated drug laws and implement new laws which would focus on best practices of preventing drug trafficking as well as, root causes as to why people begin selling drugs in the first place.
In conclusion, as stated by Scott Christianson, “our society really has to do some hard thinking and reflect on the impact of this long-term war on drugs — what it has meant for our society and what it has cost,” (Mann, Brian). The War on Drugs has cost us much more than just monetary cost, it has tarnished our justice system and reflected our policies on drugs as racist and garnered to disproportionately target mainly one group of people. Because drug laws have undertoned racial implications, makes drug laws the primary reason why they should be abolished and changed for good.