America’s Public Enemy Number One

President Nixon, aside from the Watergate scandal, is remembered for his lofty rhetoric regarding illicit drugs. In July of 1971, he declared a war on “America’s public enemy number one”, drug abuse. Nixon’s program called for an expansion in federal agencies responsible for drug control as well as the empowerment of warrants and mandatory sentencing. Following administrations maintained similar policies and witnessed dramatic rates of incarceration while drug use has remained unchanged. Even today drug policy is a hot issue for presidential candidates and news corporations. The big news is that the US has 25% of the world’s prisoners and only 5% of the world’s population, surpassing that of all developed countries (Washington Post).

The huge numbers of those entering prison are generally accredited to drug crimes. Violent crimes in urban areas are on a downward trend with homicide rates in major cities like LA, Detroit, and Chicago on the steady decline. New York City in particular has witnessed a startling drop from almost 2,500 annual homicides in 1990 to less than 500 in 2015 (The Washington Post). While other kinds of crime like embezzlement, extortion, assault, and immigration are also on the decline. A majority of prisoners, a considerable 46.

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5% as of February 2016, are convicted of drug crimes (Federal Bureau of Prisons). Moreover, despite the stories of violent drug deals and dealing king pins, nearly half of drug related arrests are linked to nonviolent marijuana possession (according to the FBI’s 2012 statistics). In terms of reform, the main avenue pursued by the government has been punishment. Taxpayers would rather be paying for walls and cells rather than reform programs for convicts. The perspective of taxpayers is understandable, why should somebody else pay for criminals’ education or recreational activities? However, when investigating the matter further than the surface issue of criminals eating up tax money, there are deep rooted issues that contribute to the growing population in US prisons. A more practical answer lies in addressing the societal issues that imprison so many.

Rather than lowering the spending on each prisoner, we should enact reform that lowers the number of prisoners to ensure the acceptable treatment of individuals. We shouldn’t be punishing illicit drug use; we should be addressing the cause of it. Since drug use has been rather uniform throughout the past 40 years and is biracial in trend, a persisting societal issue may be to blame. In an interview, Nixon himself recognized that “you don’t turn to drugs unless you can’t find satisfaction in another way in your own life,” identifying the significance of the environment on convicts. Physician and addiction expert Dr. Gabor Mate observed that the US “tries to deal with a health problem as if it was a legal problem”, jailing those involved with drug crimes rather than attempting to find the larger issues that cause individuals to turn to drugs in the first place.

One important factor that contributes to the staggering incarceration rates for drug offenses is the monetary interests of police departments. Often, officers are paid a base salary and can earn rewards based on arrests and drug possession is generally easy money. Officers that work on murder, rape, or embezzlement type cases may only solve one crime a month while others bust drug users at rates of 20 or more arrests a month. Additionally, “police departments often base their own internal evaluations on the number of arrests” according to the National Bureau of Economic Research. So when positions are available, officers are rewarded based on arrests, providing further incentives to arrest relatively harmless drug users than rather than more dangerous criminals. While some aspects of drug convictions can be complicated and accredited to other sources, in essence, the arrests of drug users are caused by the widespread use and sale of illicit substances.

As long as there is demand, users will find a dealer. Similarly, while urban communities lack effective infrastructure, successful public programs, and equal economic opportunity, more individuals will turn to the drug trade that supplies addicts. As acclaimed author and journalist David Simon puts it, joining the drug trade in inner city is “a rational act of somebody going to work for the only company that exists in a company town,” he continues, posing the question “when [the sale of drugs is] the only economy that’s functioning in certain places in this country-what do we expect?”. A study from the Project on Human Development in Chicago Neighborhoods concluded that disorder and crime are attributed to the structure of some neighborhoods. That those neighborhoods with “disadvantage”, defined by extreme poverty and a lack of social resources, have higher crime rates.

Poverty was measured by unemployment, low pay, dependence on certain populations, and potential for investments. All these factors and a perceived transience (measured by home ownership) and dense populations that overload public services contribute to a sense of hopelessness in the younger generations and economic desperation, which leads to crime in urban communities. Professor Charles J. Ogletree of Harvard claims that “we get a whole generation of kids who now have the assumption that they’re destined to be in the criminal justice system,” demonstrating the self-fulfilling prophesy of youth in inner city areas. Ultimately, the war on drugs is ineffective.

Public opinion limits rehabilitation programs, many of which are meant to train convicts for life after release. Policies like mandatory minimums, which force judges to assign individuals a minimum sentence no matter what the circumstance, and zero tolerance, meant to grant harsh punishments to deter future misdemeanors, have the effect of overpopulating prisons. Mandatory minimum laws assign prison sentences for remarkably longer than most would receive, keeping prisoners in facilities longer. While zero tolerance policies simply send more individuals, specifically youths, to facilities. Longer, widespread prison sentences for drug related crimes foster a much larger population that spends more of their lifetime in prison, making it increasingly difficult for them to return to society afterward.

The cuts made to educational programs only worsen their situation, not to mention the restrictions convicts face in terms of housing, employment, college grants, health care, and disenfranchisement. The failure of current policies is clearly displayed through the rates of recidivism, or the frequency with which convicts return to prison, which has been increasing over recent years. In short, US drug policy attempts to solve the societal problem of drug use with greater prison sentences rather than addressing the reason for drug use in society. When confronted with the issue of drug abuse, we must consider the factors that lead to substance abuse and remember that drug addicts are suffering a real illness. “The real question is not why the addiction but why the pain” (Dr. Gabor Mate).

Works Cited “A Brief History of the Drug War.” N.p., n.

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” Federal Bureau of Prisons. N.p., 27 Feb. 2016.

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” Federal Bureau of Investigation. N.p., 2012. Web.

22 Mar. 2016. “What’s a “Zero Tolerance” Policy?” N.p.

, n.d. Web. 22 Mar. 2016.

Ehrenfreund, Max. “I Went Looking for the Uptick in Murders in U.S. Cities. Here’s What I Found.

” Washington Post. The Washington Post, 4 Sept. 2015. Web. 22 Mar. 2016.

Maraniss, David, and Robert Samuels. “Yes, U.S. Locks People up at a Higher Rate than Any Other Country.” Washington Post.

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