How The War On Drugs Was A War On Black Children

While Jeff Sessions is amping up the War on Drugs II, Oxygen takes a look at how it has historically wreaked havoc on black families — and particularly, children.

[Photo: Screenshot of "The War on Drugs Is An Epic Fail" c/o Jay-Z/New York Times]

Charlene Hamilton and her two young daughters found themselves homeless and struggling to buy food when her husband, Carl Harris, was sentenced to 20 years for a drug-related offense.

“Basically, I was locked up with him,” she told the New York Times. “My mind was locked up. My life was locked up. Our daughters grew up without their father.”

Hamilton’s children became part of an alarming statistic: they were among the one in four black children who had at least one parent behind bars during the era of mass incarceration. From the 1980s to 2015, the number of people in American prisons for drug offenses rose from 40,900 to 469,545. Today, people of color make up more than 60 percent of the prison population. The sentencing policies of this War on Drugs, such as mandatory minimum drug laws, have helped grow our federal prison system population to the highest in the world. Around half of the population in federal prisons have been incarcerated for drug crimes (though this is three times the rate of state prisons).

Now, Attorney General Jeff Sessions is calling for prosecutors to use the Federal Drug Kingpin Act to seek the death penalty for dealers of “extremely large quantities of drugs.” John Blume, law professor and director of Cornell University’s Death Penalty Project, told CNN that this act rarely resulted in the prosecution of major dealers, but actually “mostly ensnared poor, African-American, mid- to low-level persons involved in the drug trade." The impact of an invigorated War on Drugs needs to be measured against the cost its first iteration had on the lives of people of color.

"The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the anti-war left and black people. You understand what I’m saying?" said John Ehrlichman, who was President Nixon's domestic policy adviser, to Harper's Magazine in 2016. "We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or blacks, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did." As Jay-Z said in this Op-Doc by the New York Times: The War on Drugs is an epic fail.

The opioid epidemic appears to be the focus of this version of the War on Drugs — though Sessions is also very anti-marijuana — and the opioid crisis was, for a time, mostly affecting white people, according to NPR. It appears now, though, that the opioid epidemic is not limited to rural white America. Drug overdose deaths are skyrocketing among black Americans, reports Vox on CDC findings. The Atlantic expects Trump's War on Drugs 3.0 to "reinforce a law-enforcement paradigm that puts people of color in prison."

Evans Ray Jr. was sentenced to life for arranging a drug sale. The judge in Ray’s case had his hands tied: “I believe that the circumstances justify a sentence shorter than life. I further believe that there is some disproportionality between what you’ve done and the sentence of life,” he said according to court transcripts. Due to two prior drug convictions, this was Ray’s third strike, and prosecutors advocated for the mandatory minimum sentence. Not only do these harsh sentencing laws send people to prison at higher rates, but they keep people convicted of drug offenses in prison for longer.  In 1986, shortly before the peak of President Ronald Reagan’s amped up drug war hysteria, people serving time for a federal drug offense spent an average of 22 months in prison. By 2004, that length had almost tripled to 62 months.

After 12 years, Ray Jr. was granted clemency by President Obama and released from prison into a world where he had to adjust. The wife and four children he left behind, however, had been trying to adjust since the day he was locked up.

“I didn’t have any memories,” his 14-year-old daughter Thea Ray told the Washington Post. “Just pictures.” She was 2 years old when her father was sentenced. Though she didn’t have any memories of her father, studies suggest that Ray and other children of incarcerated parents (of which black children make up the majority) suffer damaging and traumatic effects. According to a 2014 study, children of incarcerated parents are more likely to experience a range of physical and mental health conditions as well as chronic school absence. They experience depression, posttraumatic stress disorder, anxiety, cholesterol, asthma, migraines, and overall poorer health. These results only further complicate the adverse health outcomes of black children due to racism. 

Incarceration has an extremely negative effect on children, to put it shortly. Studies show that elementary-age children of incarcerated parents were at higher risk of being held back and having to repeat a grade, regardless of test scores and behavior. The research suggests that this effect may be driven by teachers’ perceptions of the academic performance of children of jailed parents. According to this study, elementary school teachers play an important role in the lives of children experiencing paternal incarceration; unfortunately for black children, white teachers are about 40 percent less likely than black teachers to expect their black students to graduate high school. These low expectations become self-fulfilling prophecies, serving to lower the academic performance of already disadvantaged children. This cycle continues to have ongoing effects on the education, and subsequently the economic status, of black children of incarcerated parents. Only 13 to 25 percent of students with incarcerated fathers go on to graduate from college.

The War on Drugs, which Nixon framed as a response to the increase in heroin, marijuana, and hallucinogen use, was a failure on all accounts. Incarceration rates are booming, and — despite the hefty 51-billion-dollar bill that taxpayers foot for it annually — people in prisons lack access to drug treatment. California and several other states have legalized marijuana with several more preparing to change legislation. With more than half of all drug arrests being for marijuana and black people almost four times more likely to be subject to those arrests despite equal usage, according to the American Civil Liberties Union, decriminalizing marijuana could lower the mass incarceration rate—especially for blacks.

The Trump administration’s case for executions is bolstered by similar penalties in other countries such as Iran and the Philippines — and as the New York Times reports, the death penalty hasn’t exactly deterred drug usage. Drug users in the Philippines rose in millions while the government has killed anywhere between 12,000 to 20,000 people in extrajudicial punishments.

The War’s most pernicious result is a vicious cycle that disproportionately targeted black men with increased policing in black communities and harsh sentences. Black children are left behind, on a trajectory toward a bleaker future with an uphill battle.

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