Drug crimes and incarceration reform

fenceA very smart interview with Senator Corey Booker on criminal justice reform and the role of drug crimes in incarceration rates:

One concern I’ve heard from activists and academics is that there’s a conventional wisdom forming that the reason our prison population is so huge is because of nonviolent offenders. Even President Obama, during his big criminal justice speech in July, said, “Over the last few decades we’ve also locked up more and more nonviolent drug offenders than ever before, for longer than ever before, and that is the real reason our prison population is so high.” When I heard that, I just thought, “That’s not true.”

Well, look, the drug war certainly has driven an explosion in incarceration, and drug crimes do make up a very large percentage of what we have. But again, we’ve been doling out harsher and harsher penalties for all crimes.

I’ve seen research that says only 17 percent of the inmates in state prisons are there for drug charges. Just 17 percent! Whereas 50 percent or so are there for crimes that are classified as violent. Does that mean talking about the problem in the way Congress has been talking about it puts a pretty low ceiling on how much of a reduction in the prison population we can achieve?

Right, but there’s some other data that we should talk about. Michelle Alexander [author of The New Jim Crow] talks about how much marijuana arrests have fueled the explosion in arrests in our country. Her point is that we end up sending so many young people, particularly young African-Americans and Latinos, into the system. And what happens once you get a felony conviction? Now you are entering this American caste system where you can’t get a job, you can’t get a loan, you can’t get a Pell grant, you can’t get public housing. And then those people often feel that they have no other options, so they go back and commit crime again. And again, and again. And what we saw in Newark, through a Rutgers study, was that about 84 percent of our murder victims had been arrested before an average of 10 times.


Victims. So what I’m saying is that, because of these low-level drug crimes, people get stuck in this world that eventually turns violent. So I’m very concerned about how we’re treating the drug war. And while I definitely want to deal with a more expansive view of who should be eligible for a lot of this legislation, please understand that the drug war has really fueled so much of our problem. The drug war has been a war where the direct casualties have primarily been America’s poor; America’s minorities; and often, unfortunately, America’s vulnerable, in terms of people with disease and addiction and mental health.

There is some debate around the Michelle Alexander book—there are people who say she overstates the role of the drug war in the mass incarceration boom. And there is data that says the percentage of drug offenders in the prison population peaked in like, 1990, at 22 percent. So even when it was at the highest it has ever been, 4 out of 5 people in prison were there for offenses that didn’t involve drugs. That’s something I hear from folks who are worried that the focus is too much on drug crimes right now.

I guess I’m not into the tyranny of the “or”— either this or that. This system is broken along many, many dimensions. And to ignore the crisis of America’s drug policies and the devastating impact it’s having in America is a very significant problem. That’s not to say there’s not a problem with high mandatory minimums as a whole—which have shifted our whole criminal justice system from courts and judges to prosecutorial discretion. But the situation is bad all over.