The Obama Administration’s Step in the Right Direction: Correcting the Collateral Damage of the “War on Drugs”

by Lee Cumberland

On October 14, 1982, President Ronald Reagan, during a speech at the Department of Justice, declared a war on crime and pledged an “unshakable” commitment “to do what is necessary to end the drug menace.” This “unshakable” commitment came to be known as the “War on Drugs;” a war that has been waged over three presidential administrations and almost three decades.  It is also a war that has been a resounding failure.

The war began when President Reagan increased federal policing budgets and personnel numbers, adopted mandatory minimum drug sentences in 1986, and adopted federal sentencing guidelines in 1987. This shift in policy marked the beginning of an extensive period of skyrocketing incarceration rates, particularly for nonviolent offenders. For instance, from 1980 to 2008, the number of people behind bars for nonviolent drug offense violations grew from 50,000 to 265,000.

Of course, even more troublesome than the skyrocketing rate of incarcerated nonviolent drug offenders, is the disproportionate effect to which the War on Drugs has affected the minority population in the United States. About 14 million Whites and 2.6 million African Americans have reported using an illicit drug. This means five times as many Whites are using drugs as African Americans, yet African Americans are sent to prison for drug offenses at ten times the rate of Whites. More particularly, African Americans represent 12% of the total population of drug users, yet 38% of those arrested for drug offenses, and 59% of those in state prison for a drug offense.

On May 13, 2009, the Obama Administration signaled a potential shift in perspective from the “get tough on crime” mantra of previous administrations when R. Gill Kerlikowske, the director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy stated that the government would no longer use the term “war on drugs” because it was “counterproductive.”

Since this time, the administration, and Attorney General Eric Holder, have demonstrated a commitment to looking at drug crimes and the overarching criminal justice system with a new, more productive, perspective. For example, in August of 2013, Eric Holder announced a new “Smart on Crime” initiative aimed at increasing the “emphasis on proven diversion, rehabilitation, and reentry programs,” and reducing  “unnecessary collateral consequences for those seeking to rejoin their communities.”  Among the key changes already being implemented is a modification of the Department of Justice’s charging policies – to ensure that people who commit certain low-level, nonviolent federal drug crimes will face sentences appropriate to their individual conduct – rather than stringent mandatory minimums, which will now be reserved for the most serious criminals. This change in policy alone is a stark shift from the despotic War on Drugs initiatives espoused in the past three presidential administrations.

However, to the credit of both President Obama, and Attorney General Eric Holder, it appears as though there are more changes to come. In a February 11, 2014 speech at Georgetown University Law Center, Attorney General Eric Holder stated, “It is time to fundamentally reconsider laws that permanently disenfranchise people who are no longer under federal or state supervision.”  In saying that, Attorney General Eric Holder called on states to repeal laws that prohibit felons from voting after their release from incarceration.

This shift in policy is important in beginning to remedy the collateral damage caused by the War on Drugs, especially within minority communities. It has been over a century since African Americans were stripped of their fundamental right to vote in post-Reconstruction states, through devices such as poll taxes and literacy tests, yet the disproportionate effect felony disenfranchisement has on the African American community is reminiscent of policies and efforts of the time.

Today, in America, an estimated 5.8 million Americans are not allowed to vote because of previous or current felony convictions. Of those, nearly 38%, or 2.2 million African American citizens are banned from voting based on felony disenfranchisement laws. This number means that nearly one in 13 African-American adults are banned from voting because of these laws.  More shockingly, in Florida, Kentucky, and Virginia, this ratio soars to one in five.

Attorney General Eric Holder noted that felony voter disenfranchisement laws “are not only unnecessary and unjust, they are also counterproductive.” He asserted, “By perpetuating the stigma and isolation imposed on formerly incarcerated individuals, these laws increase the likelihood they will commit future crimes.” By repealing these prohibitions, the Obama administration expressly aims to lower recidivism rates and end the stigma that many felons face after repaying their debt to society, but indirectly this commitment to reevaluating the policies implemented during the War on Drugs is also a step in the right direction for realigning the disproportionate effect the current criminal justice system has on minority United States citizens.

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