One of the most devastating effects of the war on drugs has been on people of colour in the US, especially African-Americans. I’ve long believed that a serious society would consider decriminalising if not legalising drugs, a point I argued in a recent Guardian column.
Now, some positive news from the US (via the New York Times):
Two decisions Monday, one by a federal judge in New York and the other by Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr., were powerful signals that the pendulum has swung away from the tough-on-crime policies of a generation ago. Those policies have been denounced as discriminatory and responsible for explosive growth in the prison population.
Critics have long contended that draconian mandatory minimum sentence laws for low-level drug offenses, as well as stop-and-frisk police policies that target higher-crime and minority neighborhoods, have a disproportionate impact on members of minority groups. On Monday, Mr. Holder announced that federal prosecutors would no longer invoke the sentencing laws, and a judge found that stop-and-frisk practices in New York were unconstitutional racial profiling.
While the timing was a coincidence, Barbara Arnwine, the president of the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, said that the effect was “historic, groundbreaking, and potentially game-changing.”
“I thought that the most important significance of both events was the sense of enough is enough,” said Ms. Arnwine, who attended the speech in San Francisco where Mr. Holder unveiled the new Justice Department policy. “It’s a feeling that this is the moment to make needed change. This just can’t continue, this level of extreme heightened injustice in our policing, our law enforcement and our criminal justice system.”
A generation ago, amid a crack epidemic, state and federal lawmakers enacted a wave of tough-on-crime measures that resulted in an 800 percent increase in the number of prisoners in the United States, even as the population grew by only a third. The spike in prisoners centered on an increase in the number of African-American and Hispanic men convicted of drug crimes; blacks are about six times as likely as whites to be incarcerated.
But the crack wave has long since passed and violent crime rates have plummeted to four-decade lows, in the process reducing crime as a salient political issue. Traditionally conservative states, driven by a need to save money on building and maintaining prisons, have taken the lead in scaling back policies of mass incarceration. Against that backdrop, the move away from mandatory sentences and Judge Shira A. Scheindlin’s ruling on stop-and-frisk practices signaled that a course correction on two big criminal justice issues that disproportionately affect minorities has finally been made, according to the advocates who have pushed for those changes.“I think that there is a sea change now of thinking around the impact of over-incarceration and selective enforcement in our criminal justice system on racial minorities,” said Vanita Gupta of the American Civil Liberties Union. “These are hugely significant and symbolic events, because we would not have either of these even five years ago.”
Michelle Alexander, an Ohio State University law professor who wrote “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness,” an influential 2010 book about the racial impact of policies like stop-and-frisk and mandatory minimum drug sentences, said the two developments gave her a sense of “cautious optimism.”
“For those of us who have become increasingly alarmed over the years at the millions of lives that have been wasted due to the drug war and the types of police tactics that have been deployed in the get-tough-on-crime movement, today’s announcements give us fresh hope that there is, in fact, a growing public consensus that the path that we, the nation, have been on for the past 40 years has been deeply misguided and has caused far more harm and suffering than it has prevented,” she said.