Mass incarceration has been just one of the results of the “war on drugs” in the United States. It is probably fair to say that in 1971, when President Richard Nixon declared drug abuse “public enemy number one,” that he had no idea of the long term implications that declaration would have on the country. First, let’s take a look at some numbers so you can get an idea of the cost of making addiction a crime.
The International Centre for Prison Studies reports that half of the world’s prison population of about nine million, reside in penal institutions in the US, China or Russia. However, while the overall general population in America is but a fraction of China, we have the highest number of prisoners by almost a million people. The US Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) reported that there were 2,220,300 adults behind bars in 2013, and according to the Bureau of Prisons, close to half (48.6 percent) are incarcerated for drug crimes—some of whom are serving life sentences for nonviolent drug offenses.
It is almost impossible, and for good reason, to wrap your head around those statistics, yet they are a reality. Fortunately, the view of addiction and how it should be handled has gradually been changing in America, in part due to the opioid epidemic. Lawmakers have taken a look around and can see that addiction can affect anyone, as is evident by the over 2.5 million Americans living with an opioid use disorder. There are more opioid addicts than there are prisoners in the United States.
There has been a big push to do away with mandatory minimum sentencing laws which affect minorities the most. What’s more, lawmakers having been calling for more addiction treatment, and less imprisonment for nonviolent drug offenders. Unfortunately, repealing and altering the draconian drug sentencing laws in America is no easy task. And even if public sentiment and sentencing laws change, there are still thousands of people serving unjust time for the crime of addiction. Because of those circumstances, the current White House administration has been working tirelessly to give people a second opportunity.
Pardon for Drug Addiction
There is a good chance that you have heard the reports in recent years regarding Presidential commutations, specifically for those who are serving lengthy sentences for nonviolent offenses. In fact, the President has commuted the sentences of nearly 800 prisoners during the course of his tenure, most of them drug offenders. The president has commuted more prison sentences than his 11 predecessors combined. The president has commuted or reduced the sentences of a number of people who were serving life sentences.
The effort to commute the sentences of drug offenders has widely been applauded. No one should have to rot away in jail because they became hooked on drugs. It is likely that more sentences will be considered and commuted between now and January 20th when the next president is sworn in. However, there are still some 13,275 petitions for clemency still pending, as of October, Business Insider reports. With little time left, many inmates fear that their window of opportunity is closing fast.
There is no way of knowing the stance that the next President will take, so organizations like the Clemency Project 2014, are working hard to forward inmates’ petitions to the Pardon Attorney, according to the article. The project has sworn that they will continue filing inmates’ petitions until time runs out. The Clemency Project consists of a team of lawyers who vet petitions in order to deem which ones stand a chance, before sending them off to the Pardon Attorney.
We certainly have expressed to [the lawyers] that time is of the essence and we want to work quickly and efficiently,” project manager Cynthia Roseberry told Business Insider.
The Future is Uncertain
One can only hope that those who deserve a second chance, will be granted such a gift – the gift of recovery. As the next few months play out, hopefully the push for treatment over jail will continue. It is the only way to reduce the prison population and prevent staggering mass incarceration rates. As featured and promoted in the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act (CARA) treatment is the answer, and should be the weapon of choice in the war on drugs moving forward.