It’s an odd country, really. Our largest growth industries are gambling and prisons. But as you may have heard, crimes rates are dropping. We’re not putting people into prison for hurting other people. We’re putting them into prison for using drugs, and as we already know, that doesn’t help them or us.
Our entire system of criminal justice is becoming more and more bizarrely prosecutorial – a federal court has just held that the Miranda rule no longer applies. (That decision, by the way, was the result of a case brought by the Landmark Legal Foundation, the right-wing outfit that gets money from the same Richard Mellon Scaife so notable in the apparently endless effort to get President Clinton.)
Last year, more than 600,000 people in this country were arrested for possession of marijuana, a drug less harmful for adults than alcohol. A famous British medical journal, The Lancet, concluded last year: “On the medical evidence available, moderate indulgence in cannabis has little ill effect on health.” And according to an ad campaign by Common Sense for Drug Policy, a Department of Health and Human Services study shows that less than 1 percent of marijuana users become regular users of cocaine or heroin.
Of course, drug policy in this country has a long history of tragicomic turns. Back in the early seventies, Texas still had berserker marijuana laws (first-offense possession of any amount was a two-to-life felony). I will never forget the jaw-dropped amazement with which we learned that Nelson Rockefeller, then the governor of New York, had proposed a similarly draconian law there on the grounds that “Texas has it, and it works very well.”
It worked so badly that it was a rank, open scandal, and the very next year, the Texas Legislature – which by no means had any claim to the progressive credentials for which Rockefeller was noted – repealed the thing. Even the Texas Lege could see what a piece of folly that was.
But the history of our drug policy is that there’s always some new drug to be frightened of, usually associated with a feared minority group, as opium was with Asians and marijuana with Mexicans. And in the eighties, along came crack, associated with inner-city blacks.
According to a series currently running in The New York Times, “Crack poisoned many communities. Dealers turned neighborhoods into drug markets. As heavily armed gangs fought over turf, murder rates shot up. Authorities warned that crack was instantly addictive and spreading rapidly and predicted that a generation of crack babies would bear the drug’s imprint. It looked like a nightmare with no end.
“But for all the havoc wreaked by crack, the worst fears were not realized. Crack appealed mainly to hard-core drug users. The number of crack users began falling not long after surveys began counting them. A decade later, the violence of the crack trade has burned out, and the murder rates have plunged.”
Which would be great news, except for Boots Cooper’s immortal dictum: “Some things that won’t hurt you will scare you so bad that you hurt yourself.” And you should see what fear of crack has done to the American system of criminal justice.
The Times reports that every twenty seconds, someone in America is arrested for a drug violation. Every week, a new jail or prison is built to house them all in what is now the world’s largest penal system.
A lethal combination of media sensationalism and political law-and-order opportunism pushed through a virulent stew of get-tough-on-drugs laws. The worst were mandatory minimum sentences, which took away the discretion of judges to lighten up when they feel it appropriate, and the three-strikes-and-you’re-out laws.
The Times seems slightly startled by the injustices that these laws have wrought, noting in one alarmed bit of type: “Mother of two gets life in prison for $40 worth of cocaine.” Shoot, that’s nothin’– in Texas, we gave a guy life for stealing a sandwich. “Father of nine gets ten years for growing marijuana plants.” Hah! In Texas, we gave a guy more than that for busting a watermelon. Don’t get me stah-ted.
A further distortion in the system produced by these wacky laws is that good behavior can no longer get you out of prison early; the only way out is to roll over on somebody else. It pays to sing in this system.
And do you think it makes a lot of difference to people doing time whether they get out by telling the truth or by making it up? One defense attorney said: “They’re like crazed, berserk rats in there; they’ll say anything.” And so another unhappy consequence of our fear of crack is that more and more people are being convicted of crimes they never committed because other people in prison are willing to lie about them.
“Since 1985, the nation’s jail and prison population has grown 130 percent, and it will soon pass 2 million, even as crime rates continue a six-year decline,” reports the Times. And on top of that is the particularly ugly racist distortion in the law.
The gross disparities in sentencing between powder cocaine users (largely white) and crack users constitute one of the open scandals of America. What is less well known is that most crack users are white, too. But law enforcement has so heavily targeted inner-city black neighborhoods that black users are going to prison at a far higher rate.
But none of this – not all the new drug laws and new prisons and incredible incarceration rates – has reduced illicit drug use. Far fewer Americans use drugs today than did at the peak years in the seventies, but almost all of the drop occurred before crack or the laws passed in response to it, according to the Times.
Unless you are a drug user or know somebody in the joint, all this may seem far removed from your life. It’s not. They’re taking money away from your kids’ schools to pay for all this, from helping people who are mentally retarded and mentally ill, from mass transit and public housing and more parkland and .…
Molly Ivins is a former Observer editor and a columnist for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Her latest book is You Got to Dance With Them What Brung You. You may write to her via e-mail at email@example.com.