Over the course of this first week of November, 6,000 federal prisoners will prematurely return home as a result of the United States Sentencing Commission’s mass reductions in drug charges. A culmination of overcrowding, rising federal expenses and backlash against the harsh treatment of offenders has compelled legislators on either side of the partisan divide to re-evaluate the penal system, and now, tens of thousands of inmates face potential release within the next year.
For activists decrying excessive punitive codes, this measure is a long-awaited and welcome step towards reforming the nation’s prisons. The War on Drugs initiated by Richard Nixon in the ‘70s, the catalyst for a pattern of villainization of addicts and dealers, seems to be finally relenting after decades of lengthy sentences and unforgiving rehabilitation policies.
But why now? Yes, overcrowding is a mounting problem, but with approximately one in one hundred Americans incarcerated each year, federal and state prisons alike have faced issues of overpopulation since the ‘80s; in fact, from 1980 to 1997, the number of offenders imprisoned for nonviolent drug charges leapt from 50,000 to more than 400,000. According to a study by the U.S. Government Accountability Office, by 2011 federal prisons were nearly 40 percent over capacity. In 2018, the GAO’s research estimates that prisons will be almost 50 percent over maximum capacity. So what has compelled both Republicans and Democrats in 2015 to suddenly champion softer anti-drug legislation? The response is evident: the face of America’s “junkie” has changed.
Heroin and cocaine addiction is no longer limited to minority communities and people of color. With cases of possession and overdose skyrocketing among the white middle class, drug abuse has spread from the underprivileged cities and become the domain of young people throughout the country’s affluent suburbs. In fact, 90 percent of first-time heroin users within the past decade were white (The New York Times, “In Heroin Crisis, White Families Seek Gentler War on Drugs,” 10.30.15).
These affected families, unlike black and latino groups, have the means to redirect the national attitude towards punishment; director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy Michael Botticelli said of the situation, “Because the demographic of people affected are more white, more middle class, these are parents who are empowered… They know how to call a legislator, they know how to get angry with their insurance company, they know how to advocate. They have been so instrumental in changing the conversation,” (The New York Times). In the Northeast especially, overdose is a leading cause of white adolescent mortalities, and the families of those lost to opioids are spearheading the movement for rehabilitation reform with a surge of task forces, summit meetings and proposals for new treatment and prevention methods.
Politicians have responded swiftly to these appeals. In the past few months, President Obama has formulated a $133 million plan to institute a wave of treatment programs, Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton has proposed a similar $10 billion project as a fundamental component of her platform, Republican candidates Carly Fiorina and Jeb Bush have relayed to voters their own personal accounts of drug addiction within their families and Governor Chris Christie has declared a pro-life stance for all people, including drug users. The opioid and painkiller epidemic is, essentially, the only current domestic problem on which legislators have found common ground.
Years ago, the strict punishments imposed in cases of drug possession were defended as necessary in deterring criminal violence. Drug use is no longer perceived as a criminal act because offenders are no longer considered to be criminals– the average white teenager isn’t as easily villainized, after all, as the wayward black city kid.
Disproportionate incarceration rates are an indisputable reality in the U.S., with one in three black men and one in six Latino men likely to face imprisonment in their lifetime as opposed to one in 17 white men. For women, these figures are echoed, albeit at lower rates; one in 18 black women and one in 45 Latina women will serve time in prison at some point in their lives, but the same is only true for one in 111 white women. Traditionally, two-thirds of inmates charged with drug offenses are people of color. These figures are a blatant illustration of the injustice surrounding the discourses on drug use in American politics. Is the government really waging a war on drugs, or a war on minorities?
Executive director of the Sentencing Project Marc Mauer notes, “Both the image and reality is that this is a white and often middle-class problem… and appropriately so, we’re having a much broader conversation about prevention and treatment, and trying to be constructive in responding to this problem. This is good. I don’t think we should lock up white kids to show we’re being equal,” (The New York Times). What Mauer, like many of his fellow prison reform advocates, is virtually implying is that forgiveness for drug offenders is ‘better late than never,’ or that it’s better to accept the nation’s belated change of heart and accommodate white drug users accordingly rather than subject them to the same treatment as their black counterparts for the sake of reparations.
True, policy reform is desperately needed and should be lauded regardless of past circumstances, but it’s imperative that the country addresses the unfortunate fact that only the white population has the power to mobilize meaningful societal change. The clamor raised by the parents of white drug users–children pegged as victims, not criminals–has garnered more attention from authorities over the course of a single decade than the protests of minority groups have won since the start of the civil rights movement.
In popular media, families leading the charge against harsh sentences cite the rise in protesters as the primary cause of recent reform, it’s the identity of the voices that’s changed, not the number. Attempting to attribute the shifts in the national conversation to anything other than structural racism is not only inexcusable, but simply unrealistic.
Moreover, the most disappointing truth of the matter is that American law enforcement on the state and federal level operates on sentiments of compassion, not equality, and for many subjugated groups, compassion from officers and policy makers is widely nonexistent. Former narcotics detective Eric Adams told the New York Times, “The way I look at addiction now is completely different. I can’t tell you what changed inside of me, but these are people and they have a purpose in life and we can’t as law enforcement look at them any other way. They are committing crimes to feed their addiction, plain and simple. They need help.”
What changed inside Adams was his ability to relate to the addicts that he was investigating. His statement serves as a grave reminder that we inhabit a world where white lives are singularly prioritized as purposeful. They matter. The lives of people of color, it seems, will remain subject to degradation for as long as compassion is limited to the white majority, and considering the progression of racial equality in the U.S., sympathy for black and latino criminals is a long time coming, but we must continue to fight for it.