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Obama Finally Acknowledges Mass Incarceration But Proposes Reforms That Leave Failed ‘War on Drugs’ Intact

For the first time in President Barack Obama’s administration, he used the phrase “mass incarceration” in a speech and appropriately called attention to the disproportionate impact incarceration has on black and Latinos in the United States.

The president also proposed several policy solutions that could potentially diminish the level of widespread injustice millions, especially nonviolent drug users, have endured. However, Obama declined to call for an end to the “War on Drugs” and proposed solutions would leave most of this destructive and failed strategy intact.

Mass incarceration makes our country worse off, and we need to do something about it,” Obama declared during remarks at the NAACP’s 106th Annual Convention in Philadelphia. 

Obama highlighted statistics that were probably all too familiar to those who have read Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.

…The United States is home to 5 percent of the world’s population, but 25 percent of the world’s prisoners. Think about that. Our incarceration rate is four times higher than China’s. We keep more people behind bars than the top 35 European countries combined. And it hasn’t always been the case — this huge explosion in incarceration rates. In 1980, there were 500,000 people behind bars in America — half a million people in 1980. I was in college in 1980. Many of you were not born in 1980 — that’s okay. (Laughter.) I remember 1980 — 500,000. Today there are 2.2 million. It has quadrupled since 1980. Our prison population has doubled in the last two decades alone…

Those are stunning statistics the country should not ignore. It is hugely important that a US president finally talked about this issue openly.

Obama also said, “In recent years the eyes of more Americans have been opened to this truth. Partly because of cameras, partly because of tragedy, partly because the statistics cannot be ignored, we can’t close our eyes anymore. And the good news — and this is truly good news — is that good people of all political persuasions are starting to think we need to do something about this.”

There has been a lot of critical activism on the issue of mass incarceration in the past five to six years. Individuals and organizations engaged in that struggle, coupled with the Black Lives Matter movement of the past year, have forced those in power to confront policies that dehumanize and devalue black lives. As Occupy changed the framework of discussion about economic inequality, Black Lives Matter created a space for Obama to talk about a set of issues too often labeled as Black issues and ignored by white America.

“Over the last few decades, we’ve also locked up more and more nonviolent drug offenders than ever before, for longer than ever before. And that is the real reason our prison population is so high,” Obama added. “In far too many cases, the punishment simply does not fit the crime. If you’re a low-level drug dealer, or you violate your parole, you owe some debt to society. You have to be held accountable and make amends. But you don’t owe 20 years. You don’t owe a life sentence. That’s disproportionate to the price that should be paid.”

Obama had put out a “drug control strategy” that aimed to provide treatment for nonviolent drug users instead of simply putting them in jail. But never had he presented all the statistics showing the human and economic cost and connected how the government treats nonviolent drug users to mass incarceration.

Ahead of a planned visit to a federal prison, Obama stated, “We should not tolerate conditions in prison that have no place in any civilized country. We should not be tolerating overcrowding in prison. We should not be tolerating gang activity in prison. We should not be tolerating rape in prison. And we shouldn’t be making jokes about it in our popular culture. That’s no joke. These things are unacceptable.”

The president even highlighted his own Justice Department, noting that the Department now spends one-third of its budget on incarceration.

Sharda Sekaran, the managing director of communications for the Drug Policy Alliance, reacted, “Fifteen years ago, when I first started working on drug policy and criminal justice reform issues, I never would have imagined these words coming out of the mouth of a sitting U.S. president. But then again, I would never have imagined Barack Obama.”

“Fifteen years ago, we were still advocating to get influential civil and human rights organizations to recognize U.S. mass incarceration as a crisis. We were the underdogs promoting awareness around the fact that appallingly high numbers of incarcerated people are more likely to be poor, black, brown, marginalized, and ensnared in a broken system than they were a threat to public safety.”

Perhaps, that is over the top, however, for someone who has worked on these issues, that is a compelling expression of the progress advocates have achieved in shifting the consciousness.

None of the above signifies that the country is remotely close to properly addressing the effects of mass incarceration and eradicating mass incarceration once and for all.


Obama mentioned an array of measures that would potentially help address mass incarceration—more investment in communities; restoring trust between police and communities; lowering mandatory minimum sentences for “nonviolent drug offenders” or getting rid of them entirely; passing sentencing reform legislation in Congress; investing in alternatives to prison, like drug courts, treatment, and probation programs; an Attorney General review of solitary confinement in American prisons; rewarding prisoners with reduced sentences if they complete certain programs; encouraging more employers to “ban the box” asking job applicants if they have a criminal record; and allowing ex-felons to vote.

All of these proposals address a symptom. They barely address the systemic racism or other systemic problems, which have transformed the United States into incarceration nation.

While aspects of the War on Drugs, such as sentencing and rehabilitation policies, may be reformed, the strategy itself would remain entirely intact.

Decriminalizing drugs would go a long way toward reducing mass incarceration.

Consider Portugal: In 2001, the country got rid of criminal penalties for anyone caught with small amounts of marijuana, cocaine, or heroin. Possession became a misdemeanor similar to illegal parking. Although the number of adults who use illegal drugs increased, the number of teenagers who use illegal drugs decreased and drug users who went to rehab rose significantly.

It became such a popular alternative to the US drug policies that the Obama administration put out a “fact sheet” on the “challenges and limitations” of drug decriminalization in Portugal in 2010. The “fact sheet” specifically aimed to debunk a 2009 report from the Cato Institute lauding Portugal’s drug policy.

The Obama administration may be correct that decriminalization has not had a huge effect on levels of drug use. As the Transform Drug Policy Foundation (TDPF) in the United Kingdom points out, this confirms worldwide evidence that “enforcement of criminal drug laws has, at best, a marginal impact in deterring people from using drugs. There is essentially no relationship between the punitiveness of a country’s drug laws and its rates of drug use. Instead, drug use tends to rise and fall in line with broader cultural, social, or economic trends.”

Given that reality, the only reason the Obama administration should oppose Portugal’s drug decriminalization is if crime had escalated as a result. But decriminalization did not result in escalation.

Re-categorization of possession of small amounts of drugs reduced those arrested and sent to court for drug offenses from 14,000 in 2000 to 5,500-6,000 per year. The percentage of people in Portuguese prison, who are there for drug-related offenses, has fallen from 44% in 1999 to under 21% in 2012. Homicides did not increase because drugs were decriminalized. There was no noticeable increase in crimes, which have typically been associated with drugs, according to TDPF. Deaths related to drug use in Portugal decreased from 80 in 2001 to 16 in 2012.

More than twenty countries have adopted some policy of drug decriminalization. Critically, these countries are recognizing the necessity of removing the stigma of drug addiction in order to encourage users and addicts to pursue help when they need it.

Taking a health-centered approach requires investment, the kind of investment in communities Obama appeared to advocate in his speech. There must be social work, prevention programs, and clinics. Funding for services, which can deploy people to the streets, can have a positive impact as well.

If the Obama administration truly believes “drug addiction is a disease of the brain that can be prevented and treated and that we cannot simply arrest our way out of the drug problem,” it can show it by rejecting the War on Drugs. Not only it will people suffering drug addiction finally receive the help they need, but it will slowly become more possible to dismantle a system that has enabled mass incarceration.

Image is screen shot of President Barack Obama speaking at the 106th Annual NAACP Convention.


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Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."