By: Eugene Dabs
There is a disturbing problem in the United States criminal justice system. International human rights laws dictate that the aim of all penal systems should be that of rehabilitation, yet the number of people in prison in the United States has quadrupled since 1980. Despite making up only 5% of the global population, the USA incarcerates almost 25% of the world’s prison population. The skyrocketing rates at which we imprison our citizens cannot be separated from the problem’s roots in slavery and racial discrimination if we are to create a truly just legal system for the future.
As of 2013, more Than 2 million people are imprisoned in the United States. If you broaden the definition of correctional supervision to include those on probation and house arrest the figure balloons to nearly 7 million. Even at the height of Stalin’s reign, official Soviet archives indicate that there was only 1.6 million people in the Gulags, a per capita rate only slightly higher than our own. (History of Stalin’s Gulag)
The root of our modern criminal justice system is in slavery. Despite outlawing slavery, the 13th amendment makes an exception for use as penal punishment. This lead to harsh racial discrimination throughout reconstruction and the Jim Crowe era that kept black Americans second class citizens all the way up until the civil rights movement. Miraculously, the mass movement led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr and others gave all US citizens full equality in the eyes of the law, no matter their religion, ethnicity or beliefs. Sadly, I fear that if Dr King had lived to see what was to come at the end of the 20th century, he would be quite disappointed that his dream had not been actualized. Beginning as early as 1968, aides in the Nixon administration have testified that the war on drugs was devised specifically as a way of neutralizing the threat of “blacks and hippies” that the government perceived in the Leftist Civil Rights and anti-Vietnam war movements.
The war on drugs caused the number of people in prison to rise out of control. The harmful effects of marijuana were deliberately exaggerated. Despite being chemically the same drug, powdered cocaine and crack cocaine were given different sentences, with the lesser being given to cocaine, the more expensive and traditionally White person drug. Throughout the war on drugs, black people have been incarcerated at a rate 10 times higher than whites, despite using drugs at the same rate. (ACLU)
In the Reagan, Bush and Clinton eras, the number of people in prison eventually surpassed 2 million people as the turn of the millennia approached. The Crime bill of 1994 and Clinton’s “3-strikes you’re out” policy meant thousands of completely non-violent drug offenders in the United States have life sentences.
But all is not lost. The problems of mass incarceration are being brought to the forefront for the first time. Marijuana is being fully recreationally legalized in numerous states in a domino effect that is likely to culminate in the nationwide legalization of cannabis, medical or otherwise. After that, it is reasonable to assume that we will follow in the footsteps of more progressive nations that have fully decriminalized, though not fully legalized, all narcotic drugs. The question remains: Will we allow a multi-billion dollar industry to spring up out of seeming thin air, making mostly white people rich, while millions of black Americans are in prison for cultivating the exact same plant? If we are to create a more perfect society, with equality and justice for all, then the answer to this question must be no. In the majority of states, those who have been convicted of a felony lose their right to vote permanently. How can we call ourselves a true democracy when we relegate so much of our population to second-class citizenship in the name of archaic and draconian laws of a bygone era?