Decriminalizing Poverty

Decriminalizing Poverty

America doesn’t have a drug problem. It has a poverty problem.


America’s drug policy aims to reduce illicit drug use by arresting and incarcerating dealers and, to a lesser extent, users. Whatever its merits (and there are some), the policy is deeply flawed because it is unjust. It applies only to the disadvantaged. As such, it reflects massive deficits in the areas of treatment, education and employment.

Drugs are intensively criminalized among the poor but largely unregulated among the rich. The pot, coke and ecstasy that enliven college dorms, soothe the middle-class time bind and ignite the octane of capitalism on Wall Street are unimpeded by the street sweep, the prison cell and the parole-mandated urine tests that are routine in poor neighborhoods.

The drug war is nitro to the ghetto’s glycerin. In neighborhoods of mass unemployment, family breakdown and untreated addiction, punitive drug policy (and its sibling, the war on crime) has outlawed large tracts of everyday life. By 2008 one in nine black men younger than 35 was in prison or jail. Among black male dropouts in their mid-30s, an astonishing 60 percent have served time in state or federal prison.

The reach of the penal system extends beyond the prison population to families and communities. There are now 2.7 million children with a parent in prison or jail. There are 1.2 million African-American children with incarcerated parents (one in nine), and more than half of those parents were convicted of a drug or other nonviolent offense.

In the absence of any serious effort to improve economic opportunity, particularly among young men with little schooling, drug control has become our surrogate social policy. For all the billions spent on draconian criminalization, addiction remains a scourge of the disadvantaged in inner cities and small towns, drugs are still plentiful and the drug trade remains a ready but risky source of casual employment for low-education men and women with no legitimate prospects. Though drugs are at the center of an array of serious social problems in low-income communities, things are made worse by a dysfunctional policy in which arrest, imprisonment and a criminal record have become a normal part of life.

The most important lesson policy-makers can take from this historic failure of social engineering is that the drug problem depends only a little on the narcotics themselves, and overwhelmingly on the social and economic context in which they are traded and taken.

Addiction exacts a toll not because the latest drug is more addictive or more potent than its predecessors but because there is too little treatment, few family or community supports, and acute economic insecurity in low-income households. The drug trade—with all its volatility and violence—is not a mainstay of economic life because of the ghetto-fabulous drug culture and its promise of conspicuous wealth. It succeeds because there is no work for men and women who dropped out of school, who have never held a legitimate job and who read at an eighth-grade level. America doesn’t have a drug problem. It has a poverty problem.

Change, however, is in the air. The states are broke and are trying to cut their correctional populations. Parole and probation reforms are successfully reducing reimprisonment for drug and other violations. Libertarians on the right and left are finding common ground on decriminalization. Hard times, it seems, are forcing reform on a profligate policy.

But policy reform—as salutary as it often is, and like the drug war before it—risks mistaking symptom for cause. If we only decriminalize, eliminate mandatory minimums and divert to community supervision rather than reincarcerate, then untreated addiction will remain ruinous, and illegal opportunities will continue to offer more than going straight.

Our best research shows that criminal justice reform must be buttressed by drug treatment, education and employment. These measures complement one another. A less punitive drug control regime acknowledges relapse as a likely stage on the road to recovery. Keeping people out of prison can carry a steep social cost unless they’re meaningfully occupied. In this context, school and work are as important for the stability and routine they provide as for the opportunities they expand.

The drug war made an enemy of the poor. A successful ceasefire must do more than lift the burden of criminal punishment. It must begin to restore order and predictability to economic and family life, reducing vulnerability not just to drugs but to the myriad insecurities that characterize American poverty.

Read more from the special forum on drug policy reform:

Ethan Nadelmann, "Breaking the Taboo"
Marc Mauer, "Beyond the Fair Sentencing Act"
Tracy Velázquez, "The Verdict on Drug Courts"
David Cole, "Restoring Lost Liberties"
Laura Carlsen, "A New Model for Mexico"

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