After a 2006 peak in overcrowding, California’s Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation is now two years into creatively realigning the state’s prison population, but politics is always present. Because politicos and administrators avoided early releases and larger supportive programs by any means necessary, the predicted decrease plateaued and prompted a tense standoff between the ethical incentives of the federal judges and the political incentives of those mandated to fix it.
In a press conference last week, Governor Brown illustrated the extent to which politics distorts policy with a half-joke: “Reducing the number of felons in prison is not…[to] beat your chest about. There are very few [candidates] saying, ‘And if I’m elected, you’ll have thousands of felons in your neighborhood.”
For over 40 years, Americans with understandable preconceptions have been asking the wrong questions about solutions to crime and receiving frightening answers like Brown’s. The House I Live In, last fall’s award-winning documentary from Eugene Jarecki, presents a case for breaking that cycle.Over $1 trillion in public funds has gone to repeatedly arrest, charge, and incarcerate over 40 million Americans
In his exploration of the systemic and human damage inflicted by the “war on drugs,” powerful personal testimonies come from every perspective: dealers, ex-addicts, inner city NARCs, Main Street sheriffs, and the families caught between. However, collateral damage in families of convicts and disillusionment among weary officers is, like addiction, only a surface symptom.
Mike Carpenter, chief of security at Lexington Corrections in Virginia, has a highly developed perspective on why the system he upholds fails to embody the principles by which he lives.
“We’re at a point where no one can afford to be the guy who says, ‘I don’t think we can afford this,'” he observes. The prison machine preserves itself so effectively “[that incarceration] is a self-fulfilling prophecy.” After four decades of building industrial and political momentum around drug crimes, “we become victims of the soundbite.”
Since 1970, over $1 trillion in public funds has gone to repeatedly arrest, charge, and incarcerate over 40 million Americans, most of whom from low-income households. This came from the honest belief that harsh punishments could shape hard-working citizens.
After a 1968 election platform of fighting crime, President Nixon launched the initial “war on drugs.” Nixon, by present correctional standards, was fairly progressive: he drew heavily from independent research and routed two-thirds of the budget exclusively to treatment.
Believing he could keep election rhetoric from undermining practical policy, Nixon returned to his tough-on-crime signature for re-election, popularizing the least effective options and setting a new campaign standard.
By the time President Reagan declared a unilateral domestic war on narcotics, the problem and the solution were becoming mutually dependent. This, in turn, justified harsher laws passed without concrete evidence.
“People are doing a whole lot of time for not a lot of crime,” says Carpenter. “It’s like they’re paying for our fear instead of their crime.”
Lexington Warden Eric Franklin elaborates: once we only locked up the dangerous, “those we’re afraid of.” The drug war saddled thousands with long nonviolent sentences, rerouting scarce resources to lump in “those we’re mad at.”
People are doing a whole lot of time for not a lot of crime - Security Chief of Lexington Corrections
Few understand the real impact of tough-on-drug-crime legislation more than Judge Mark Bennett of the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals in Sioux City, Iowa, who found himself in the national spotlight after being the first American judge to use a new right to judicial flexibility and charge crack cocaine trafficking on a 1:1 ratio with powder, unlike the current 18:1, or previous 100:1 ratio mandated by the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986. The rationale for these ratios was unraveled in the mid-90’s.
Bennett did everything in his power as a federal representative to prevent the defendant, a child of addicts and survivor of abuse, from facing a 20-year mandatory minimum sentence the judge didn’t believe he deserved. However, federal law trumped his ruling and the defendant began servicing a sentence on par with violent offenders despite no history of violence.
Judge Bennett agreed to an interview as a direct result of that difficult ruling;
“You can’t know what it’s like to look in the mirror and know you’ll do a personal injustice to someone that day. I did an injustice to Maurice.”
The film asserts that hardline political rhetoric on crime is addressing only the tip of the iceberg, ignoring the imbalance of opportunity which makes black markets so consistent.
At the root of most drug prohibitions in our nation’s history were familiar class and racial tensions surrounding rotating populations of cheap laborers. Before immigrant resentment upended the pharmaceutical industry, many powerful narcotics like heroin, cocaine, and others were commonly available, and those with addictions were medically treated with sympathy.
Investigative journalist and interviewee, Charles Bowden, poses a maxim at the film’s beginning about how to inflate a problem: “ask us the wrong question, then feed us the wrong answer…we have to understand that the drug war has never been about drugs.”
The convention for years has been a) someone must be culpable for drug use and b) the culpable are the front-line users and dealers.
David Simon, the creator of the Wire, points out in the film, going to a drug corner in the slum is the “rational act of someone going to work for the only company that exists in a company town.” Denied opportunities to escape from bad areas, earn promotions, and participate meaningfully in the American economic engine, the moral center of poor communities began to decay.
“What do we expect?” Simon exclaims “At this point, we might as well just say, ‘We don’t need the poor. Let’s get rid of them.'”
Many of the interviewed inmates were former blue collar white Americans who lost jobs in the Recession and became the very junkie and dealer they once refused to sympathize with while voting. The drug war is no longer about race; it’s about class and in post-recession America, the bottom class could include anyone.