Among the very few people celebrating our country’s fiscal crisis are criminal justice reformers. Bill Piper, national affairs director for the Drug Policy Alliance, gushed recently, "Budgetary issues is where I’m most optimistic. Given the fiscal climate, there could be real cuts in the federal budget. Next year is probably an unprecedented opportunity to defund the federal drug war." His enthusiasm reflects a confluence of somewhat surprising events. For the first time in decades, politicians across the political spectrum, including some who were once "get tough" true believers, are wondering aloud whether the drug war has become too expensive. The conservative Heritage Foundation issued a report on the eve of the midterm elections calling for a whopping $343 billion in federal budget cuts, including elimination of the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) and the Justice Assistance Grant program (formerly known as the Byrne grant program), which has long provided the financial fuel that powers regional drug task forces and the drug war machine. At the state level, where the economic crisis has been felt most acutely, at least eighteen legislatures have reduced or eliminated harsh mandatory minimum sentences, and more than two dozen have restored early-release programs and offered treatment instead of incarceration for some drug offenders.
Could this be the beginning of the end of the drug war, a war that has reportedly cost more than $1 trillion in the past few decades, with little to show for it beyond millions who have been branded criminals and felons, ushered behind bars and then released into a permanent second-class status? More than 30 million people have been arrested since 1982, when President Reagan turned Nixon’s rhetorical "war against drugs" into a literal war against poor people of color. During the past few decades, African-American men, in particular, have been arrested at stunning rates, primarily for nonviolent, relatively minor drug offenses—despite data indicating that people of all races use and sell drugs at remarkably similar rates. In some states, 80 to 90 percent of all drug offenders admitted to prison have been African-American, and when released they find themselves ushered into a parallel universe where they are stripped of many of the rights supposedly won during the civil rights movement. People labeled felons are often denied the right to vote and legally discriminated against in employment, housing, access to education and public benefits—relegated to a second-class status for life simply because they were once caught with drugs. Could the economic crisis finally put an end to this madness? Is the drug war machinery that produced a vast new racial undercaste finally winding down?
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At first blush, Piper’s optimism seems well-founded. Bipartisan zeal for budget cutting has coincided with the Obama administration’s expressed support for kinder, gentler drug policy. Obama’s drug czar, Gil Kerlikowske, told the Wall Street Journal last year that he would no longer refer to our nation’s drug policy as a "war on drugs" because "we’re not at war with people in this country." Drug abuse ought to be viewed as a public health problem, he says, with more resources devoted to ensuring that fewer people suffer from addiction. That’s music to the ears of many criminal justice reformers, who have fought heroically for such reform in far less sympathetic political climates.
Kerlikowske insists that the shift is not purely rhetorical, and in a certain respect he’s right. More money is being channeled into drug treatment. But here’s the rub: as the overall drug control budget continues to grow, the ratio between treatment and prevention (36 percent) and interdiction and enforcement (64 percent) remains the same as that found in the Bush administration budget in fiscal year 2009. Expenditures for "lock ’em up" approaches continue to climb.
Many well-intentioned advocates argue that the best way to push the Obama administration to move beyond kinder, gentler rhetoric to meaningful policy reform is by presenting drug law reform as a budget issue. Given the belt-tightening mood in Congress and the reluctance of the administration to show leadership on issues of race, the thinking goes, now is not the time to link drug law reform to a broader movement for racial justice. Ending our nation’s racial divisions and anxieties is pie in the sky, a utopian dream. Better to stick with cost-benefit analyses of drug treatment versus incarceration, and show the public that it’s cheaper to send a kid to college than to prison.