Kemba Smith was just a sophomore in college when she met her “knight in shining armor” on campus. Over time, he became controlling, abusive and eventually, looped her into his drug trafficking operation by forcing Smith to carry weapons and cash for him.
Her boyfriend was eventually killed, but Smith was not freed. She was indicted on drug charges and, despite being pregnant, sentenced to more than 24 years in prison. After just six years, she received clemency from President Bill Clinton -- making Smith an anomaly in the ongoing War on Drugs. This campaign for prohibition is an aggressive effort to criminalize drug use. The War on Drugs was kicked off by President Richard Nixon, brought to a frantic crescendo by Reagan, and created the ongoing phenomenon of mass incarceration. The United States is home to just 5 percent of the world’s population, but it holds 25 percent of its inmates.
In 1980, there were 50,000 people incarcerated for nonviolent drug offenses — by 1997, that number skyrocketed to more than 400,000.
“The way we address drugs... [is] sort of the meat and potatoes to our broader mass incarceration system,” said Art Way, Colorado state director for the Drug Policy Alliance to Oxygen. “I couldn’t imagine what our system of mass incarceration would look like if we didn’t turn people with a small amount of drugs in their pockets or in their systems into felons.”
For roughly the past decade, drug charges have fueled half of the population of the federal prison system, said Way, who is also senior director of criminal justice reform strategy at the DPA. Drug convictions make it hard to secure housing and find employment—often condemning people to a cycle of poverty.
Here’s what the War on Drugs has done to our prison system:
1. Prisons became a lucrative business
Since 2000, the number of people housed in private, for-profit prisons has increased by 45 percent, while the country’s overall prison population has grown by just 10 percent, The Sentencing Project reports.
This growth spurt didn’t happen overnight. While prisons in the U.S. used to be mostly non-profit operations ran by federal and local governments, the privatization of facilities began to take off when Ronald Reagan was in the White House, continued to expand under the Bush administration and exploded when Bill Clinton was president. If it wasn’t for the punitive approach taken with non-violent drug possessions, private prisons wouldn’t be as lucrative as they are today, said Way.
“When you set up a private prison it’s similar to a hotel,” he said. Both need to be full.
That’s why lobbyists across the country pressure state governments to expand criminal penalties and ensure private prisons can be stocked with tenants, he said. In fact, Arizona’s notorious anti-immigration bill, SB 1070 — which ordered police to check the immigration status of anyone they detain — was heavily promoted by private industry groups, said Way. The private prison industry, which saw a heavy setback during Obama’s tenure, is making a comeback, especially with the increase in immigration detention.
2. Prisons are getting overcrowded
Prisons are bursting at the seams. In Denver, Colorado for example, voters approved funding for the construction of a new jail in 2005, amid claims that after its completion, it would never be fully populated and no new facilities would have to be built, said Way. But if you build it, they will come.
“Within five years it was at capacity and they were talking about expanding,” said Way.
Overcrowding isn’t just about discomfort. It breeds violence behind bars, creates dangerous conditions like contaminated food and extreme temperatures, and can make it impossible for prisons to provide appropriate medical care and other necessary services, according to the ACLU. Too many inmates in prison affects the entire criminal justice system in fact, said Way, as it spills over into how well local jails operate, how the pre-trial system functions, and more.
In California, conditions of overcrowding became so dire that in 2014, state voters passed a measure that reduced certain drug possession felonies to misdemeanors and minimized sentencing for an array of other non-violent crimes.In the year following Proposition 47’s passage, more than 4,300 California prisoners were resentenced and then released, and drug arrests in Los Angeles County dropped by a third, the Washington Post reported.
3. Minorities and women were disproportionately impacted
Disproportionate policing and racially-charged policies and profiling has long been a pattern for law enforcement in the U.S. In fact, one of President Richard Nixon’s top advisors publicly admitted that the war on drugs was designed to target “the antiwar left and black people,” John Ehrlichman told Harper’s Magazine.
This has lead to a prison system that even today, prosecutes blacks and Latinos at much higher rates than whites. While whites outnumber blacks five to one and both demographics sell and use drugs at a comparable rate, African-Americans comprise 74 percent of those incarcerated for drug possession, according to “Race & The War on Drugs,” a position paper from the ACLU.
In 2016, there were a total of 19,766 federal drug cases; half of them against Latino offenders, more than 23 percent were against black individuals and nearly 23 percent were white. This is relative to a U.S. population that’s 77 percent white, 13 percent black and 17 percent Latino, Vice News reports.
Women aren’t totally spared from this equation either. The number of women incarcerated has also been on a steady incline. Since 1980, the rate of women behind bars has increased at a rate 50 percent higher than that of men, according to a report from The Sentencing Project, a Washington D.C.-based research and advocacy center.
4. Prisons became wildly expensive
The federal prison system costs nearly $7 billion a year—about one of every four dollars spent by the U.S. Justice system. State corrections… For the stacks of money being spent on incarceration, you’d hope the country would see falling drug rates and reductions in recidivism - offenders returning to jail after release - but Pew reports that these numbers haven’t improved much. In fact, over the past few decades the statistics have remained relatively unchanged; just about one third of drug offenders who leave federal prison and are put on community supervision commit new crimes or violate conditions of their release in some way.
Recent data shows that housing inmates at the federal level costs approximately $33,000 per inmate, per year. Many state prison systems shell out even more; New York, for one, which clocks in at around $69,000 per inmate and is surpassed only by California, which pays a whopping $75,560 each year. This per-inmate cost remains astronomical even after The Golden State has managed to reduce their overall prison population.
While the War on Drugs isn’t over, there are increasing efforts to not only stem its future impact, but address its longstanding, grossly disproportionate impact on minority communities. For instance, in states such as California, with legalization of recreational marijuana comes the decriminalization of many associated offenses. In fact, California residents who had been previously convicted of a marijuana-related crime, are now eligible to have those charges reduced or expunged. This offers them an opportunity for a clean slate, and could set the precedent for many more states to come.
(Header Photo: A demonstrator protests the "War on Drugs" as part of a "Day of Direct Action" at Lafayette Park, in front of Obama's White House on June 17, 2013. C/o: SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)
(Graphs C/o the Sentencing Project)