A war that should end
30-year war on drugs has failed, turned U.S. into ‘incarceration nation’By J. Robert Charles
As Christians who have questioned the morality and usefulness of our nation’s armed conflicts, Mennonites in the United States should call and work for the end to a 30-year war by our federal government. It is a war that has produced a wasteful diversion of our financial resources, created millions of harshly punished and disenfranchised citizens and harmed our relations with other countries of our hemisphere. It is time to end the war on drugs.
Declared by President Ronald Reagan soon after he took office in 1981 — in an era of declining crime rates and before crack cocaine began hitting major U.S. cities — today this war represents, under President Obama, a still-escalating commitment to a failing course of action. While ending this war will not be an easy task, the first step is to make a case for why it should end. Three main arguments stand out.
In the first place, the war on drugs has led to an explosion of public spending at all levels — federal, state and local — on prisons and, either as a direct or unintended consequence, a shrinking of money spent on education. Over the past two decades, the amount of state spending on prisons has risen at six times the rate of spending on higher education.
The situation in Ohio illustrates this disturbing national trend. In the late 1970s, higher education in Ohio accounted for 17 percent of its budget, while prisons received 4 percent. Today, 11 percent of Ohio’s budget goes to higher education, forcing tuition rates up sharply for all students, while the state’s corrections budget now commands 8 percent — double its previous share. Nationwide, state and local funding of higher education has fallen to a 25-year low.
Are we not risking the economic and social future of our country if we continue to rob Peter to pay Paul in this way? Do we as Mennonites really agree with this massive shift in our public priorities as reflected in how our tax dollars are spent in this era of scarce resources?
The boom in state spending on corrections, accompanied by reduced investment in education, is directly linked to a second nasty effect of the war on drugs: the dramatic growth in the U.S. prison population over the past 30 years. We have become, in the words of journalist Fareed Zakaria, the “incarceration nation.” It is largely convictions growing out of the war on drugs that has caused the U.S. prison population to explode from around 350,000 in the 1970s to more than 2 million today. Very few of those going to prison are drug dealers, whether big or small; most are users.
Our nation now has the highest incarceration rate in the world, dwarfing those of most other developed countries, even surpassing those of regimes such as Russia, China and Iran.
Studies show that people of all colors use and sell drugs at similar rates — and that white youths are even more likely to engage in drug law violations than people of color. Yet U.S. prisons now overflow with black and brown drug offenders; their criminal records subject them to many kinds of legalized discrimination for the rest of their lives.
Calling off the war on drugs, with its punitive bias for relatively minor offenses falling heavily on non-white citizens, would be a step in the direction of greater social justice.
Finally, the war on drugs has had a disruptive, violent impact on countries to the south — from Mexico to Colombia, with smaller ones such as Guatemala and Honduras in between — that either produce or serve as transit routes for bringing drugs to the insatiable, illegal U.S. market.
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