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Weve all heard the statistics: the
United States has 5 percent of the
worlds population but 25 percent
of the worlds prisonersone
in 100 Americans is behind bars.
For black men between the ages
of 20 and 34, the gure is one
in 9.
Americas addiction to
incarceration has driven these
statistics, shining a spotlight on
the way in which we dehumanize
those who suffer from addiction
or lack of access to legitimate
economic opportunities.
I know this rsthand; I grew up visiting my own dad in prison. He
sufered from both conditions: the need to make money along with skill
at an entrepreneurial endeavor (despite violating Americas drug laws),
as well as, a 30-plus year heroin addiction that led to an HIV diagnosis
as it does for so many. My mom often recalls a judge who pondered
aloud whether my dad used drugs because he sold them, or vice versa.
While he was alive, and since his passing almost six years ago, weve
often wondered that ourselves.
My family isnt alone in wondering which came rst, the chicken or the
egg, or if any of it was worth it. My dad cost taxpayers like you and me
hundreds of thousands of dollars in incarceration and healthcare costs,
which could have been averted had he ever had access to comprehensive
drug treatment that met his needs and capability. Unfortunately, there
is a dearth of treatment opportunities outside the criminal justice
system; our system criminalizes people who struggle with drug misuse
or addiction instead. This approach leads individuals away from proven
treatment methods and into prisons, jails and drug courts. Meanwhile,
as many as 20 million Americans each year do not receive the substance
abuse treatment for alcohol and other drugs that they need,
and more
than 26,000 people die annually from accidental drug overdose.
In the more than 40 years that America has been ghting the failed war
on drugs, weve wasted more than a trillion dollars, with few signs that
these eforts have been successful. As cartels grow increasingly powerful
and lives are lost in tragic ways, even our long time drug war allies, like
Colombia and Mexico, have reassessed this effort and implored the
United States to reframe our approach.
How did we get to this point? On any given night, more than 500,000
Americans are behind bars for a drug law violation
10 times the
number in 1980.
In 2010, 18 percent of people in state prisons and more
than 50 percent of people in federal prison were serving a sentence for
a drug law violation.
More than a quarter of women and 17.2 percent
of men in state prison are incarcerated for a drug law violation.
In fact,
in the last three decades, the adult arrest rate for drug law violations
increased by 138 percent.
And in 2011, there were more than 1.5 million
drug arrests in the United States80 percent of which were for simple
possession alone.
A myriad of mechanisms have led us to this grave dishonor of leading the
world in incarceration. Misguided drug laws and draconian sentencing
requirements have produced profoundly unequal outcomes for
communities of color. Racially biased policing and the erosion of judicial
discretion through mandatory minimum sentencing have led to disparate
rates of incarceration and sentence lengths for people of color. And the
never-ending cycling in and out of prison can be attributed to the barriers
to successful re-entry, that have been cemented by unnecessarily harsh
laws targeting drug users and sellers .
Although rates of drug use and selling are comparable across racial lines,
African Americans and Latinos are far more likely to be stopped, searched,
arrested, prosecuted, convicted and incarcerated for drug law violations
than whites. Instances of racial profiling in traffic stops and the
disproportionate policing of urban communities have led to the arrest
and funneling of more people of color into the criminal justice system.
From 1980 to 2007, African Americans have been arrested for drug
violations nationwide at rates 2.8 to 5.5 times higher than white arrest
African Americans comprise 13 percent of the U.S. population,

and report using drugs at similar rates to people of other races,
make up 31 percent of those arrested for drug law violations
and more
than 50 percent of those incarcerated in state prison for drug law
In fact, African Americans have a 20 percent greater chance
of being sentenced to prison than white drug defendants.
Mandatory minimum sentencing laws for drug convictions only consider
the type of drug, weight of drug, and prior convictions of the individual
when determining prison terms. Initially enacted to limit disproportionate
racial sentencing in Southern courts, mandatory sentencing guidelines
force judges to assign unjust sentences to low-level rst time drug ofenders
that are disproportionate to their committed ofenses. Sadly, individuals
can typically only secure sentence reductions by acting as an informant. 61
The cruel and unusual severity of minimum drug sentencing requirements
raises questions surrounding their constitutionality and abuses of Eighth
Amendment rights.
Mandatory minimum sentencingsuch as
sentences above 20 years doled out under the 100:1 crack cocaine federal
sentencing disparity, which led to African Americans accounting for 80
percent of federal cases despite only accounting for one-third of users
have contributed signicantly to prison overpopulation and the increasing
number of people of color behind bars. Before mandatory minimums, the
average federal drug sentence was 11 percent longer for blacks than for
whites. After mandatory minimums were instituted in 1986, federal drug
sentences were 49 percent higher for African Americans.
Punishment for a drug law violation is not solely meted out by the
criminal justice system, though. Policies denying child custody, voting
rights, employment, business loans, trade licensing, student aid and
even public housing and other public assistance to people with criminal
convictions perpetuate the punishment. Many of these policies only
impact people who have been convicted of drug crimesthose convicted
of other types of ofenses, even violent ones, are not subject to the same
types of collateral consequences. The lifelong penalties and exclusions
that follow a drug conviction have created a permanent second-class
status for millions of Americans.
Even if a person does not face jail or prison time, a drug conviction
recordparticularly a felony recordcan create a lifetime of barriers to
achieving success. And, as with drug law enforcement, these barriers
fall disproportionately on individuals and communities of color. It was
this early understanding that led drug policy experts to call the drug war
the new Jim Crow, inspiring Michelle Alexanders eye-opening book
of the same name. The biases those with the criminal label encounter, as
Alexander explains, contribute to the perpetuation of criminality as a
means of survival due to lack of available opportunity. Lack of opportunity
coupled with the label of criminality for low level ofenses creates little
room for positive lifestyle changes, which in turn solidify perceptions of
a racialized criminal minority in the public consciousness.
Mass incarceration has major implications for American democracy.
Nationally, an estimated 5.3 million Americans are denied the right to
vote because of laws that disenfranchise people with felony convictions.
The implications for the black community are even more shocking: one
out of every 13 black people of voting age in the U.S. cannot vote because
of felony disenfranchisement.
Families like mine have been devastated by mass incarceration. More
than half of incarcerated people are parents of minor children, including

Estimated number of Americans that are denied the right
to vote because of laws that disenfranchise them with
felony convictions.
more than 120,000 mothers and 1.1 million fathers. Two-thirds of these
parents are incarcerated for nonviolent ofenses, most of which are drug
law violations.
As many as 2.7 million children (one in every 28) are
growing up in U. S. households in which one or more parents are
The impact on children from communities of color is
much greater3.8 percent of African American children had a parent
incarcerated for a drug law violation in 2008, compared to one percent
of Latino children and 0.3 percent of white children.
Moreover, research
estimates that having an incarcerated parent makes a child six times
more likely than children whose parents are free to become criminally
involved or to be imprisoned at some time in their life.
Paradoxically, a recent study based on a national survey of youth found
that black adolescents were less likely than whites to have engaged in
drug use or drug selling, but were more likely to have been arrested.
Racial disparities in adolescent arrests appear to result from diferential
treatment of minority youths and to have long-term negative efects on
the lives of afected African American youths.
Given my background, it is by the grace of God that my only arrest has
been for protesting our countrys unjust drug laws.
Jasmine L.Tyler
The United States has dug itself into a hole. In order to get out, we have to
seriously consider decriminalization of personal drug possession, which
would remove a major cause of arrest and incarceration of nonviolent
people, primarily people of color. We must also eliminate policies that
result in disproportionate incarceration rates by rolling back harsh
mandatory minimum sentences that unfairly afect people of color and
by repealing sentencing disparities. And nally, we have to make sure
that we prepare people to return to our communities and give them the
chance to engage positively with society by ending the use of policies that
exclude people with a record of arrest or conviction from key rights and
opportunities. Its time to stop digging.
Jasmine L. Tyler is the deputy director of national affairs
for the Drug Policy Alliance and is based in Washington,
D.C. She advocates for policies that reduce racial
disparities in the criminal justice system, increase
access to social and health services,
and treat people who use drugs with
dignity. Jasmines work has included
grassroots and grasstops organizing
across the political spectrum, public
speaking, and media appearances. She is one of the
leaders of the Crack the Disparity Coalition, which
works to equalize the penalties for crack and powder
cocaine. Her work led directly to federal crack cocaine
sentencing reform in 2010, including the rst elimination
of a mandatory minimum penalty since the 1970s. Her
writing has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, the
Economist, Hufngton Post and other national media
outlets. Prior to joining DPA, Jasmine worked as
research director for the Justice Policy Institute. She
has also worked as a sentencing advocate
collaborating with public defenders in Washington,
D.C. and Fairfax, V.A. She received a B.S. from James
Madison University and an M.A. from Brown University,
both in sociology.