Jason Marque Sole was severely wounded by a gunshot in 1998 and entered into the Minnesota Department of Corrections as an inmate at the age of twenty-one. He earned his B.A .in Criminal Justice in 2006 and has one year left to obtain his M.A. in Criminal Justice. He hopes to inspire ex-offenders to seek higher education by excelling from prison to a PhD.
The War on Drugs, the longest war in America’s history, is an abject failure – unless you think spending a lot of tax payer’s money for a constant catch and release program is the real purpose. If you were to design a “War on Drugs”, would it necessarily be focused on poor blacks in the inner city? If you focused more broadly – would you apply different rules for different communities – and if so, on what basis? This article will look at the scope of the war by examining the impact and the detrimental effects it has had on African Americans, and the differential implementation of criminal justice policy based on race and class.
“US Chief Executive Ronald Reagan declared war on drugs in February 1982, and pledged his administration to the task of curtailing the burgeoning drug epidemic in the United States. To accomplish this urgent national security objective, the federal government rapidly increased expenditures for narcotics control programs during the ensuing seven years of his two-term presidency, reaching $4.3 billion annually in 1988” (Bagley, 1988). Why wasn’t this war waged on the coast of Florida and California, where drugs are imported? Why wasn’t their effort geared towards stopping it at the door?
With an appropriate policy response, we could have had a war on drugs that curtailed substance abuse, and created alternatives to the “crack economy” of ghettos across the un-United States. Quality jobs, education and connection to opportunity networks would have become the norm rather than the exception for poor inner city blacks.
We did not choose this policy track. What we did choose to do was focus the attention of limited police resources on arrests in black communities, and for courts to focus on convictions of those arrested, and for corrections to hold as long as they could and release when they have to. All of this was done in the name of safety and justice? Safety for who? Justice for who?
Violent media images and stereotypes to justify harassment and racial profiling in impoverished communities were smoothly delivered into every American living room with access. The everyday proof that the war was necessary and effective when adequately resourced was spoon-fed to the public, and many, if not most, accepted this as true. Treating the surface manifestations of a problem will never address its roots. The media bamboozling about the War on Drugs inundated us with what was and is happening on the surface, but hasn’t bothered to dig beneath this level. The public is also culpable – it didn’t bother to dig deeper either. The reality is really quite sobering.
The War on Drugs has had a genocidal effect. Before this war, our U.S. prison population was around 300,000. Today, our prison population is above 2.3 million and is rapidly rising; the majority of offenders are locked up for non-violent offenses – many of them for drug offenses. Before this war, African American men were beginning to close the racial wage gap and benefit from a rising economy – it appeared that the “American Dream” was beginning to include them. The rise, from the end of World War II to the early 1970s, coincided with the zenith of the Civil Rights Movement politically, the move of blacks from the south to the north demographically, the robust post-war economy, and significant technological changes that changed patterns in industry and in homes and communities.
For the poor African American men,songs of being Black and proud or fighting against the powers that be, began to become too mainstream, while the establishment thought redemption seemed too near. It is not a question of who was right or wrong, but rather one of a relationship between perspectives. The establishment perspective determined a way to “partner” with the corporate perspective to “contain” certain zip codes as drug hot spots and focus the attention of police on making arrests there – prompting the engagement of the entire criminal justice system.
Next, the media sensationalizes how out of control the drug hot spots are and whips up hysteria among the public that prevents clear thinking about the under-lying problems never or rarely mentioned in the media sound-bites. Poor African Americans, for their part in this madness – either joined the police-homeowner-government-corporate partnership for arrests and convictions of all drug offenders (the ones in the hot spots, not the ones watching the news), or opted either to just continue their daily struggle to survive or fight back in any way they could against institutional, cultural and structural racism AND impoverishment.
If we break it down to two teams competing – the “partnership” as we will call it, and “poor blacks” – the partnership is winning. A cost-benefit analysis was conducted, resources were mobilized, and this strategic “war on drugs” plague formed a means to keep blacks down permanently and the end is nowhere in sight.
In 1986, the death of Len Bias of the Boston Celtics sparked frenzy in America because everyone assumed that he died from a “crack” overdose. He actually died from a cocaine overdose but the “get tough on drugs” policy had already been implemented when the truth was revealed. The old saying “perception IS reality”, is all too true in the case of the war on drugs. Blacks actually use drugs significantly less than whites, but you sure couldn’t tell from studying only who is arrested and/or convicted. Whites make up 75% of drug users but is this message being broadcasted or will this hegemonic regime rule forever?
“Even though crack is produced from powder cocaine-just add a baking soda mixture and cook until the water evaporates and the rock ‘cracks’-the federal legislation established dramatically different penalties for the two forms of the drug. For crack, the possession or sale of as little as five grams mandates five years in prison, but for cocaine that penalty is not triggered until the sale of one hundred times that amount, or five hundred grams. The racial disparities that have accompanied the prosecution and sentencing of federal crack offenders have been dramatic with African Americans constituting 85% of defendants each year.”
During the time in which the War on Drugs policy was implemented research showed that African Americans indulged in crack, while Whites indulged in cocaine. It is no coincidence that the penalties were much stiffer for crack. It has been easier to arrest African Americans for possession of crack, in comparison to Whites because the core locations of crack drug sales just happen to coincide with the concentrated poverty tracts where African Americans are over-represented. You can capture a large pool of suspects in droves, and this methodology of seek and destroy does not pertain to the suburbs or rural America.
Whites have been able to conceal their behavior in the privacy of their basements, while the African American poor - who are under-housed, under-employed, under-privileged and with limited political power operate open air drug markets – are much easier to catch, keep and control by comparison. Many in our community make parallels between slavery and the oppressive nature of incarceration of the African American poor with limited education. People enter the prison-industrial complex with a name but they leave as a number. The old saying was, “You do the crime, you do the time” but the new saying should be, “You do the crime, you do the time by suffering for the rest of your life via background checks.”
We are calling for a new abolition movement. Abolish the use of prison as a warehouse for the poor and abolish the pattern of inter-generational impoverishment. Malcolm X once stated that if you are born in a poor community, you enroll in a poor school where you receive a poor education that enables you to get a poor job, which puts you right back in a poor community. This a vicious cycle but when the injustice system is added into the equation its effect is catastrophic.
In the pursuit of happiness, many African American males have resorted to selling crack because of the illusion of success deemed inevitable in the inner city. I always wondered why the government facilitated the co-location of illicit drug markets with concentrated poverty tracts, then turned right around and focused their arrests on people who lived in the very places they encouraged the drugs to flow with government policy. But I no longer have blind eyes.
I sold my first bag of crack at the age of fourteen and have been to prison due this powerful drug. Having a father addicted to cocaine left a heavy burden on my mother. Entering into what I considered a lucrative position of authority, selling drugs seemed to make life a little better financially. I was sixteen when my mother sent me to Iowa, in an effort to save me from the lure of the streets but I didn’t stop there. I even landed in Minnesota via the drug trade. Drugs are everywhere and there is never a shortage.
To better understand the criminal justice system I sought higher education; receiving a B.A. in Criminal Justice and with a year left in a Graduate Program in Criminal Justice, the corruption seems much clearer. Mentoring and community organizing about issues that affect the underserved, has helped more youth understand the traps that have been laid before them. My mission is to help children learn from my mistakes and help ex-offenders learn from my road to redemption. By showing others the pain and suffering that I endured helps them gain a sense of hope.
Many of my childhood friends are prisoners of war due to Reagan’s decision in 1982. Research has proven that prison does not work, which is evident when looking at the recidivism rate, but the “lock ‘em up and throw away the key” model continues to pervade the system.
In the U.S. District Court case of United States v. Williams (1990), the defendants, who were African American, had been referred to federal court where their crack distribution carried a sentencing range of 188 to 235 months under the guidelines. In contrast, being convicted on the same charge on the state level would result in a sentence of less than two years. This increases the chances of inmates being lost in the system. The federal penitentiary sends their inmates far and wide to serve their sentences in an effort to ostracize them to maximum.
In order to bring the impact of the War on Drugs closer to home it is imperative to explain its effect in Minnesota. In 2005, 4,366 individuals were sentenced for felony drug crimes, which is about an eight percent increase since 2004. This means that more people were incarcerated, with very little educational opportunities. The system is determining who will end up in prison by evaluating fourth grade reading scores. The War on Drugs was able to further its movement in 1994 when inmates were denied the opportunity to obtain Pell Grants. The message was clear when it was told, describing Frederick Douglass: If you teach a slave to read, he is no longer fit to be a slave. Jesse Jackson stated that you can either send them to the state penn or Penn State because we should seek to educate before we decide to incarcerate.
Large corporations that profit from the prison industrial complex make millions of dollars from inmates that pay under $2.00 per hour for their labor. Incentives to offenders receiving extreme sentences for nonviolent offenses are abundant and the prison industrial complex is just one of the vicious tactics of the War on Drugs. If Reagan’s policy truly sought to eliminate drug use, why are there so few treatment programs for inmates? Fifty percent of drug users want treatment but only 15% of them receive treatment.
“In well-to-do communities, drug abuse is primarily addressed as a social or health problem, and there is no shortage of treatment resources for those with the means to pay. But in low-income communities, those resources are in limited supply, and a criminal justice response-arrest, prosecution, and incarceration-becomes far more likely” (Mauer, 2004). There are many thriving businesses that would collapse if the drug trade was destroyed. We are talking about a market that is worth billions of dollars. There is no war on drugs; there is a war on African Americans and poor people too.
According to the 2007 Report for Drug Offender Sentencing Issues, “the average prison sentence for drug offenses was 22.9 months in 1988. In 2005, it was 44.2 months”. The numbers have nearly doubled since 1988. The numbers will continue to grow because it has major payoffs. Its amazing how the War on Drugs has led to kids being administered drugs in school; it’s amazing how people addicted to crack are being introduced to methadone as a form of treatment.
Dr. Jawanza Kunjufu reminds us that alcohol and tobacco are drugs also. Take a look at the life expectancy rate for someone who smokes in comparison to someone who does not smoke; take a look at how many people pass away from lung cancer; take a look at how many people die from alcohol poisoning; take a look at how many people die from drinking and driving. The War on Drugs policy was beautiful on paper but the effects are ugly. The government is making too much money on the backs of the oppressed to really try to heal them from their sickness. The drug game has had a ripple effect that touches every city across America.
The people that are visibly selling drugs are not the importers; they are pawns. The government created laws that make it harder for youth to gain employment and it is sad but the drug world produces jobs for people that would not be gainfully employed otherwise. A diverse mix of job and wealth building opportunities in and near concentrated poverty neighborhoods and hyper-segregated schools would do a lot to dis-engage young people from the drug trade and engage them as responsible civic participants, workers and entrepreneurs.
Rather than close with a litany of complaints and blame-placing, I will close with a set of recommendations for the responsibilities we must accept to change the negative trajectories of poor black youth. There are numerous responsibilities to share – everyone can have a role.
The Department of Corrections must put an end to the punitive prison-industrial complex and stress the importance of rehabilitation and education. If the statistics show that most people incarcerated have the least education, then the answer is simple. Prisoners of the war should be allowed to join a union while incarcerated so they can have gainful employment upon reentry. Let them have a 401(k) plan. Giving them a certificate and $100 when they leave does not help at all.
The corporate sector (jobs-wealth complex) that left the inner city as blacks arrived post World War II must commit to hiring, retention and promotion policies that ensure an equal opportunity to all Americans. People on public assistance face discrimination in the job search, but the enormity of the barriers they face pale in comparison to the discrimination faced by ex-offenders. Once people have done their time, they need to be offered a fair “second chance”. That is the only way to end our crazed pattern of recidivism.
Police must stop the incessant practices of racial profiling, harassment and brutality. The government and the public must understand that the police play the role they are trained and encouraged to play by “we the people”. The “we” is whites and middle and owning classes of folks who have declared this war – and encouraged the government and its police to assault the black poor. Reflect on the disparate treatment for crack versus meth – it is a world of difference, and it is colored black or white.
A public health model is needed in the inner city – that addresses the traumatic multiple shocks that accrue from years of living with poor work and school choices, constantly swept away from kin and home by the tsunami of violent housing market shifts that over-concentrate black space only to divide it all up over and over again, and address the deep-set impact of living in and around high levels of violence and hopelessness. It is not just those directly caught in the war on drugs that need support for healing – entire communities are caught in it and need healing. Rather than focus on the individual maladies of black persons or families, it is important to treat the problem culturally and structurally – at its real roots. American Apartheid is the disease, the war on drugs one of its tools.
The media, of course, must stop sensationalizing drugs, violence and disorder in the black concentrated poverty communities and focus on the dynamic setting of our lives more holistically AND responsibly. That is a tall order for change, given the deeply disrespectful and racist role the media has played throughout the war.
Families, networks and individuals in the black community must also change. When you think about it – we always have the power within the community to organize to determine our own destiny – if we could just communicate and cooperate for long enough to define our community agenda and how to put it into effect until it yields its fruit. At the end of the day – we need to declare an end to this ineffective and destructive war immediately – and replace it not with another war – but with a commitment to peace and mutual prosperity. All RISE and Commit!
Bagley, B.M. (1998). Us Foreign Policy and the War on Drugs: Analysis of a Policy Failure.
Journal of Interamerican Studies and World Affairs, 30(2/3), 189-212.
Mauer, M. (2004). Race, Class, and the Development of Criminal Justice Policy. Review of
Policy Research, 21(1), 79-92.
Updated Report on Drug Offender Sentencing Issues. (2007). Retrieved from
www.msgc.state.mn.us on August 8, 2007.