As a filmmaker committed to addressing the injustices of the War on Drugs and its devastating impact on American communities, I awoke on November 7 to a renewed sense of purpose. Beyond working to support the movement for marijuana reform in Colorado, Massachusetts and Washington, I had traveled to California in the week leading up to election day to work for the passage of Proposition 36, a vital piece of legislation that reduces the severity of California’s notorious “three strikes” law. By voting to amend that law so that offenders with two nonviolent “strikes” against them cannot henceforth receive a life sentence for a third strike that is petty or nonviolent, Californians have sent a resounding signal to the rest of the country: it is possible to retreat from the tragic excesses of America’s criminal justice nightmare. The same state that helped lead the way into the darkness of excessive sentencing for nonviolent crimes has begun, it would seem, to lead us back toward the light. And because every state has its own special brand of excess when it comes to the treatment of nonviolent offenders, as goes California, so I hope can go the nation.
In my new film, The House I Live In, I try to understand how this country became a land without pity in our treatment of drug crime. We are the world’s leading jailer, with more of our citizens behind bars than any other country on earth. The statistics speak volumes. Over forty years, the War on Drugs has cost a trillion dollars and accounted for 45 million drug arrests. Yet for all that, America has nothing to show but a legacy of total failure. Drugs are cheaper, purer, more available and in use by younger people today than ever before. Perhaps this explains why any mention of the issue was notably absent from this year’s presidential election. Ever since Nixon first declared the War on Drugs in 1971 and proved the electoral power of anti-crime rhetoric, politicians of both parties have known, as sure as they know where their bread is buttered, that talking tough on crime is smart politics. But what happens when people begin to acknowledge that the war is a total failure? What if politicians are starting to realize that associating themselves with a loser is just plain bad politics?
In making my film, I wanted to travel beyond the statistics, so I visited more than twenty-five states to meet people at all levels of the drug war whose lives have been impacted by our misguided laws and vast prison system. The realities on the ground were nothing short of shattering. Wherever I went, everyone involved— prisoners, cops, judges, jailers, wardens, medical experts, senators—all described to me a system out of control, a predatory monster that sustains itself upon the mass incarceration of fellow human beings. Their crimes, most often the nonviolent use and sale of drugs in petty quantities, have become such a warping fixation for our prison industrial system that they are often punished more severely than violent crime.
So where do we go from here? How do we fix this? After so many years and with so many lives already impacted, there’s no silver bullet. But for me and many others working to restore sanity to America’s criminal justice system, Prop 36—a small step for California—may indeed prove a giant step for the nation. Every state has a hand in our drug-war disaster, since every state has its share of excessive policies and practices in law enforcement and the courts. All of these can and should be challenged by a justice-seeking electorate.
Last I checked, too, every state is also facing its own budgetary crisis. And herein lies perhaps one of the best pathways toward the light. California voters have not only set the stage for greater justice and smarter law enforcement; they will also save the state over $100 million a year in wasteful criminal justice spending. Suddenly, Grover Norquist and Chris Christie have common cause with Al Sharpton and Russell Simmons. Yes, fiscal conservancy can go hand-in-hand with a concern for justice and human dignity.
This is why, increasingly, the ranks of those opposed to the drug war are growing (even Pat Robertson recently voiced his opposition, echoing Brad Pitt, one of my film’s executive producers). What this means is that reformers can now turn from California to other states across the country and offer them a win-win: by reducing excesses in their criminal justice system—like stop-and-frisk in New York—they too can improve the quality of mercy in their state, produce greater public safety and save vast sums of money at the same time. Who can argue with that?