End the War on Drugs — for the childrenPublished 9:43am Tuesday, December 17, 2013
Column: My Point of View, by Jennifer Vogt-Erickson
One thing people cherish most at Christmas is to be with family. For children with an incarcerated parent, it can be an especially hard time.
Prison is one of the many problems tearing at the fabric of our families, adding trauma to children’s lives. About 2.7 million children under the age of 18 have at least one parent in prison, or 1 in 28. For black children, the rate is about 1 in 9. When mothers go to prison, their children are likely to be cared for by relatives, particularly grandmothers, or to be placed in foster care. Some mothers whose children go to foster care lose their parental rights permanently due to the lengths of their sentences, starting after as little as 15 months.
The United States has one of the highest incarceration rates in the world — about 2.2 million people are currently in our prisons or jails. Nearly 20 percent of those are drug offenders, a group which exploded with mandatory minimum sentencing laws related to the War on Drugs. The punishments are so excessive that more than 2,500 people across the U.S. are serving life sentences without parole for nonviolent drug offenses.
Enforcement of the drug laws targets people of color. Though people of different races and economic circumstances sell and use illegal drugs at about the same rates, poor people of color are disproportionately likely to serve time because of it, both because police are more likely to arrest them in the first place, and because they don’t have the resources to fight charges. The difference in outcome is eye-popping: Blacks are imprisoned at a rate more than 10 times higher than whites for nonviolent drug offenses.
These statistics bear repeating: White people and black people use and sell illegal drugs at similar rates, but black people are over 10 times more likely to serve time for it.
Even with all these people locked up, the rate of drug use remains unchanged. Violent crime rates have fallen, but it is unclear how much of this is due to mass incarceration — crime has also fallen in countries that imprison people at far lower rates.
Prison doesn’t begin to solve the problems that land a lot of people behind bars in the first place — economics and addictions. If anything, it just makes them worse. Once a parent is released from prison, how do they get on their feet to provide for themselves, let alone their children? Money is an immediate problem. Ex-cons’ chances for finding a job, any job, are reduced because they have to check “yes” for a felony conviction. They may also be ineligible for government housing subsidies and food stamps due to their record.
On the other hand, it is relatively easy to turn to drugs for both money and temporary escape. It should come as no surprise, then, that about 40 percent of those released from prison after serving time for drug offenses return to prison within three years.
There isn’t much advantage to the current system of drug enforcement. People lose freedom and opportunities, children are separated from their parents for extended periods, the public foots most of the bill and the underlying problems aren’t solved.
Who does benefit? Private prison corporations have signed many lucrative government contracts, which include average occupancy quotas of 90 percent. It’s questionable whether any entity other than the state should have access to the legitimate use of force, including corrections. We should be especially wary when a profit motive is involved.
Reducing existing sentences and repealing mandatory minimum sentencing for nonviolent drug offenses is a first step in keeping families together. Choosing options other than incarceration would also make a big difference. Probation is much less expensive than incarceration and allows people to stay in their communities. Minnesota has a leg up on many states in this area — it has the second lowest incarceration rate in the U.S. due to favoring probation as a sanction. Another alternative is funding more community-based drug treatment and mental health services. These services cost a fraction of the price of incarceration and help people deal with problems that underlie their criminal behavior.
Support family values during Christmas and all year round. End the War on Drugs and its undue punishment of children. Push for community-based drug treatment and mental health services. Help families stay together.
Albert Lea resident Jennifer Vogt-Erickson is a member of the Freeborn County DFL Party. The “My Point of View” columns alternate weekly between local Democrats and Republicans.