The Drug Policy Reform Act (DRPA) could consequently reduce prison overcrowding. Photo credit: Envato.
In the political arena, the War on Drugs has been an uphill battle after its declaration by former President Richard Nixon in 1971. This year, however, Democrat legislators are hoping to deconstruct federal drug policies.
To mark the 50th anniversary since Nixon’s declaration, Democrats in Congress introduced a bill on June 15th, 2021 to decriminalize the personal use of all scheduled drugs. That includes weed, heroin, cocaine and more. Instead of jail time, officials may issue a fine for violations or possession exceeding amounts for personal use.
The bill — The Drug Policy Reform Act (DPRA) — would automatically expunge records. It would also provide re-sentencing for individuals serving time in prison for drug- related violations. Additionally, the DPRA would prevent employment discrimination; denial of immigration status; prohibition of public benefits; and the removal of voting rights based on past criminal affiliation with drugs, reports Newsweek.
The Policy Could Free up Space in the Prison System
According to congressional research, “there has been a historically unprecedented increase in the federal prison population [since the early 1980s].”
In fact, prison populations have increased by nearly 500% due to the War on Drugs, PolitiFact confirms.
If legislators approve the DPRA, it could potentially reduce overcrowding in prisons.
According to the nonprofit organization, the Prison Policy Initiative, “prison overcrowding has always been a serious problem. [It is] correlated with increased violence, lack of adequate health care, limited programming and educational opportunities, and reduced visitation.”
More specifically, the initiative finds, most state prisons operate near capacity. Some states, like Alabama, California and Colorado are over 100% capacity.
Marc Mauer, executive director of the Sentencing Project, a criminal reform nonprofit, tells U.S. News that overcrowded prisons lead to a lot of challenges within the system.
“The biggest part of it is how the prison is being run – what the standards are, what the interaction is between the corrections staff and the inmates, what the message is from the top,” He says. “In poorly run institutions, there’s all sorts of things that can go wrong.”
“Overcrowding is a consequence of criminal justice policy not of rising crime rates. [It] undermines the ability of prison systems to meet basic human needs, such as healthcare, food, and accommodation,” states Penal Reform International, a nonprofit. “It also compromises the […] effectiveness of rehabilitation program[s], educational and vocational training, and recreational activities.”
Ultimately, the organization finds, “overcrowding […] can also cause or exacerbate mental health problems, and increase rates of violence, self-harm and suicide.”
The DPRA can Restore Minority Communities
The consequences of the War on Drugs goes far beyond the prison system. For example, once released, those who violate drug laws have limited work opportunities. Employers tend to remove individuals with past drug involvement from the application process. That has strong financial consequences for minorities and other socially disenfranchised groups who are more frequently incarcerated for drug use.
A Drug Policy Alliance study titled Race and the Drug War, highlights the disparity in treatment between minorities and white drug offenders:
“Research shows that prosecutors are twice as likely to pursue a mandatory minimum sentence for Black people as for white people charged with the same drug offense. Among people who received a mandatory minimum sentence in 2011, 38 percent were Latinos and 31 percent were Black.”
Additionally, the report states, nearly 80% of people in federal prison and almost 60% in state prison for drug offenses are Black or Latino.
For example, Fate Winslow was sentenced to life for selling two dime bags of weed to undercover cops. He tells the WWL News that he is still surprised by his sentence. After serving 12 years, he was recently released in 2020.
“I was so happy to get out,” he says. “A life sentence for two bags of weed? I never thought something like that could happen.”
Executive director of the Innocence Project of New Orleans, Jee Park also tells WWL News that Winslow’s sentence was inappropriate.
“There are hundreds of individuals serving life sentences for nonviolent crimes in Louisiana,” he adds. “[Winslow] received an obscenely excessive sentence given his life circumstances and crime […].”
African American Women are Leading This Bill
Democrat Reps. Cori Bush of Missouri and Bonnie Watson Coleman of New Jersey proposed the DPRA in an effort to end the drug war’s negative impact on society.
In a statement to Newsweek, Coleman reflects on how the War on Drugs stained America’s history.
“The United States has not simply failed in how we carried out the War on Drugs,” she says. “The War on Drugs stands as a stain on our national conscience since its very inception.”
Additionally, Bush’s statement to Newsweek echoes Coleman’s calls for a more humane approach to people that utilize drugs.
“This punitive approach creates more pain. [It] increases substance use, and leaves millions of people to live in shame and isolation with limited support and healing,” Bush says.
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