October 13th, 2016
In recent years, a small number of law enforcement agencies have begun experimenting with a less punitive approach to drug use, a shift that’s brought about some important reforms: More police officers and first responders have begun to carry naloxone, for example, the lifesaving drug that can reverse opioid overdose. And through programs such as Law Enforcement-Assisted Diversion (LEAD), there’s been a push to divert people picked up for using drugs into rehabs and social services instead of throwing them in jail.
These can and should be seen as positive incremental changes—even though continuing to use law enforcement at all as a first point of contact for people who may or may not be struggling with drugs is inherently coercive and flawed, as are programs such as drug courts.
But America’s criminal justice system is not known for its openness to more enlightened practices—so it’s depressing, but not shocking, to learn that in many places, even these modest and far-from-perfect reforms are being ignored.
An expansive report released yesterday by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and Human Rights Watch (HWR) shows that huge numbers of people continue to be swept into jails and prisons for simple drug possession. Unsurprisingly, the most vulnerable and marginalized groups are the ones most likely to end up incarcerated.
“Every 25 seconds in the United States, someone is arrested for the simple act of possessing drugs for their personal use,” the report states. “Around the country, police make more arrests for drug possession than for any other crime.”
Altogether, 1.25 million people get arrested for drug possession every year. “And despite officials’ claims that drug laws are meant to curb drug sales, four times as many people are arrested for possessing drugs as are arrested for selling them.”
From a law enforcement perspective, perhaps this disparity makes sense. It’s simply far easier for police to shake someone down on the street or during a car stop than to, say, infiltrate and take down a massive drug ring.
And despite official denials that police departments use quotas, there’s more than ample evidence that your average street cop is pressured to bring in collars. Stark racial disparities abound, with black adults getting arrested at two-and-a-half times the rates of white adults, according to the report.
Meanwhile, the report finds that many prosecutors continue to aggressively pursue the highest charges possible for even small amounts of drugs, forcing people to take guilty pleas.
“Our interviews and data analysis suggest that in many cases, high bail—particularly for low-income defendants—and the threat of long sentences render the right to a jury trial effectively meaningless,” the authors note.
The incentive to take a plea-bargain is heightened by the fact that those who take their cases to trial do not tend to fare well. In one case highlighted by the report, a New Orleans man got 17 years for half an ounce of pot, thanks to prior convictions for small amounts of hydrocodone and LSD.
Across the board, long sentences for nonviolent drug crimes are still being handed down—even as President Obama’s clemency initiative seeks to commute the long sentences of other nonviolent drug offenders.
And the aggressive policing and prosecution of drug offenses includes weed, a drug that has never been implicated in a fatal overdose, and which a comfortable majority of Americans believes should be completely legal. A Pew Research Poll also released yesterday found that 57 percent of US adults support marijuana legalization. Twenty-five states allow at least medical marijuana.
Yet around 574,000 people were busted for pot in 2015.
Despite this, the report finds that in 2015, all those marijuana busts accounted for just half of total drug possession arrests.
Meanwhile, only 505,681 people were arrested for violent crimes like murder, rape, robbery or aggravated assault—meaning that pot arrests edged out all other violent crimes combined, the report notes. Obviously, more people do drugs than commit murder, but it’s nevertheless a stark indicator of how police, funded by the taxpayer, tend to spend their time.
State-level marijuana legalization succeeds, of course, in greatly reducing total weed arrests. But disturbingly, even in those states where pot is completely legal, minorities still get disproportionately arrested—a case of old racial disparities trumping new laws. Shockingly, arrests of black and Latino youth for weed have not just stayed the same in Colorado, NPR reported—they’ve actually been on the rise.
“They probably look at us more different. I don’t think they think that white people would smoke as much as we do,” a young Latino man told NPR by way of explanation for why he’d been ordered to pay a $1,000 fine for having a drug that is legal in the state.
“The sheer magnitude of drug possession arrests means that they are a defining feature of the way certain communities experience police in the United States,” the ACLU-HRW report notes. “For many people, drug laws shape their interactions with and views of the police and contribute to a breakdown of trust and a lack of security.”
The cases they document hit heights of both absurd and all-too-familiar in America’s drug war.
One 66-year-old Texas man is in prison for three years because he had 0.0202 grams of meth (a drug that is profoundly similar to the legal and ubiquitous Adderall, as drug researcher Carl Hart has noted in The Influence). Another Texas man, who’d been busted with an empty bag that had heroin residue, was offered six years in prison as a plea deal.
And even when a drug conviction doesn’t lead to a long prison term, the consequences can be life-ruining, thanks to the burdens imposed by probation.
Read more from The Influence:
Defense attorneys interviewed by HRW said they actually advised their clients to go to jail because it’s next-to-impossible to satisfy the requirements of probation—a system many interviewees described as being “set up to fail.”
For many of the most vulnerable people ensnared in the criminal justice system, that means going in and out of jail for the rest of their lives.
And for some people, that might mean the difference between life and death. The HRW profiles a 49-year-old homeless man in New Orleans named Neal who was repeatedly busted for drug possession, leading to years in prison.
The last time he was picked up by police in 2015, he was homeless and very ill. “Because he could not afford his $7,500 bond, Neal remained in jail for months, where he did not receive proper medication and his health declined drastically—one day he even passed out in the courtroom,” the report’s authors write.
He ended up taking a guilty plea, and will serve five years in prison, because his other option was risking spending the next 20 years incarcerated.
“He told us that he cried the day he pled,” the report’s authors say, “because he knew he might not survive his sentence.”