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By Robert Valencia
When Ethan Nadelmann, director of the Drug Policy Alliance, took the stage at the Human Rights Foundation’s San Francisco Freedom Forum on September 28, he shared a staggering figure about a country that leads the world with incarceration rates at 743 people per 100,000 inhabitants—a rate much higher than China, Russia, or Rwanda. Despite the fact that this country has less than 5 percent of the world’s population, it holds almost 25 percent of the world’s inmates.
He was, of course, referring to the United States, whose draconian drug policies have not only fueled a bloodbath across its border with Mexico but also created appalling incarceration rates that mostly affect African-Americans and Latinos. While other countries like Canada, South Africa, and England also disproportionately jail people of color, they are now adopting legislative steps based on human rights principles (such as allowing sentenced prisoners to vote) to help mitigate this unfairness.
In 2007-2008, Canadian aborigines comprised four percent of the adult Canadian population, yet constituted 17 percent of the federal offender population. South Africa disproportionally incarcerates “coloureds,” an ethnic group with European and southern African tribal roots—in 2007, coloureds were incarcerated at a rate double their proportion of the population. In England, the flow of people of African and African Caribbean descent into prisons increased by 37 percent between 1998 and 2002, eight times faster than the increase of white inmates.
Nadelmann’s statistics show a similar pattern in the United States, where drug policies have decimated communities of color. His organization found that while rates of drug use and selling are comparable across racial groups, African-American and Latino men are more likely to be stopped, searched, arrested, prosecuted, convicted, and incarcerated for drug law violations than whites. Mass incarceration has long-lasting effects on communities of color. One in nine African-American children will see his or her parent behind bars, and a 2010 article by the New York University Law School showed that these parents’ criminal records pose dire consequences after they are released, including ineligibility for public and government-assisted housing, public benefits, and employment.
Though these kinds of racial disparities also remain in Canada, South Africa and England—whose systems, like the U.S., are deeply rooted in English common law and “law and order” criminal justice policies—these countries rely more on legal mechanisms like pardons or national expungement to forgive individuals for their past legal offenses.
Further, Canada has made in-prison rehabilitation widely available, and doesn’t ban ex-cons from voting, welfare benefits, public housing, or employment opportunities. After the dismantling of apartheid in 1994, South Africa enacted a swath of new rights, privileges, and reforms to change the criminal justice system. Though former South African prisoners still face challenges, the constitution requires that they be treated with “inherent dignity,” and in 2004, they were granted the right to vote. In England, individuals with criminal records are offered welfare that includes a Job Seekers Allowance and emergency crisis loans.
Thanks to these policies, the inmate populations of all these countries either declined or remained constant from 1960 to 2005, while America’s inmate population skyrocketed.
While debating alternatives to the War on Drugs is still considered taboo in the U.S., world leaders are increasingly singing from the hymnbook of drug decriminalization and strengthening rehabilitation and security programs. Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, Mexican President Felipe Calderón, and Guatemalan chief of state Otto Perez Molina, for example, all called for reexamination of the failed War on Drugs during the recent UN General Assembly.
Tactics like the recent crackdowns on important drug lords “El Talibán” in Mexico and Daniel “El Loco” Barrera in Colombia are not long-term solutions. In such a profitable business environment with such high demand, there will always be a next in command vying for the helm.
It is time for the United States to face this issue and reconsider its current, failed drug policies, both at home and abroad.
And in the next couple of weeks, President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney should address the nation’s drug policy during the prime-time debates. A good place to start would be to address the importance of reintegrating formerly incarcerated blacks and Latinos into the fabric of our society. It is critical to halt the flow of men of color into prisons for minor offenses. Curbing indiscriminate incarceration will help marginalized communities, ease the overcrowding of facilities, and reduce state and federal fiscal strains to boot—since keeping a person behind bars can cost as much as $60,076 per year, many corrections budgets are in the red.
The U.S. should reflect on its criminal justice system and look to other Anglophone countries with similar judicial structures as examples. The principles of universal human rights should be applied toward those with criminal records. Relaxing harsh drug policies while embracing the concept of human dignity will give leeway to men and women of all races and ethnicities to become breadwinners for their families and contributors to their communities.
Robert Valencia is a research fellow of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs.
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