This past Thursday, President Barack Obama became the first sitting president to visit a federal prison; just a few days earlier, he commuted the sentences of 46 low-level drug offenders. Both are steps forward in transforming our wrong-headed criminal justice system, but they are just that: steps. Our state and local governments must follow the president’s lead and transform our destructive “War on Drugs” into the public-health campaign it always should have been.
America, as more and more people are starting to realize, is indecently over-incarcerated. We lock up far more people per capita than any nation even close to our size: roughly 2.4 million men, women, and children. The financial toll of mass incarceration is irresponsible; the human toll is unconscionable.
We haven’t always been this way: Just 40 years ago, our incarceration rates were much lower, and on par with our peer nations. Since then, however, our prison population has ballooned by about 700%. What happened four decades ago that led to such a steep climb? We launched the so-called War on Drugs.
The full scope of how badly we lost that “war”—and how ill-advised it was to launch it in the first place—began to dawn on me in 2012, when I served as executive producer for Eugene Jarecki’s documentary The House I Live In. At the time, the War on Drugs had cost $1 trillion and led to 45 million arrests. Since then, those numbers have only risen.
It’s become even clearer, as I’ve visited correctional facilities and listened to inmates’ stories, that we’ve done great harm in criminalizing drug abuse. In California I met a 17-year-old methamphetamine addict who’d fallen into drug abuse after experiencing repeated sexual and physical abuse by his uncle. While incarcerated, however, instead of getting the treatment he needed, he was abused, again, and subjected to solitary confinement. Sadly, this is not a story on the margin.
There is a better way. This past Thursday, while the president was in Oklahoma, I visited a different kind of correctional facility in Portugal. It was like stepping through a looking glass—but into a more just system.
In 2001, Portugal took the bold step of decriminalizing all drug use. The Portuguese decided, instead, to treat addiction as a medical issue, with medical professionals at the center of their response system. Their correctional conditions are the exact opposite of ours; they are humane and tranquil. The facility I visited had cows and lambs out front, as part of the farm the inmates help run. They rarely use solitary confinement.
Some might be surprised to learn that Portugal has not fallen apart after 14 years of this humane, public-health-oriented approach. Quite the opposite, in fact: Portugal has seen drug-use rates, as well as drug-induced deaths, markedly decline.
Here in America, by contrast, we pay lip-service to the idea that addiction is a disease; we certainly don’t treat it like one in our jails and prisons. That’s a terrible mistake. No one grows up wanting to be a drug addict any more than anyone grows up wanting to be a diabetic or an alcoholic. Sure, people’s choices play a role in falling prey to those sicknesses; but those choices are often constrained by the mentally and emotionally debilitating effects of poverty. And further fracturing sick people’s lives through harsh punishment is no way to help them get better.
Those of us who have seen these diseases up-close understand that what a sick person needs is treatment, not punishment. As a teenager growing up in Ohio, I watched my mother disappear into more than a decade of drugs and despair after my maternal grandmother—a person who filled our whole family with love—passed away. My mother’s addiction didn’t just tear her life apart; it tore me and the rest of our family apart, too. Drug addiction, for anyone who doubts it, is a serious problem, and our society is right to want to tackle it.
But we’ve been going about it wrong. My mother didn’t need punishment; she needed help. Criminalizing drug abuse only further shatters people and families that are already in pieces.
And what’s true of drug criminalization is, unfortunately, true of our criminal-justice system in general: It takes people whom we have failed since birth—subjecting them to substandard food, poor living conditions, failing schools, unsafe communities—and then tries to “correct” them through inhumane, over-punitive treatment. That strategy would be a joke if it weren’t so sad.
Fortunately, some change is beginning to take root. The president is showing important leadership, and some state and local governments—which are where the vast majority of criminal-justice policy is made—are undertaking reform. Last November, I phone-banked and released a PSA on behalf of California’s Proposition 47, a historic ballot initiative that reclassified felonies that should never have been felonies, to misdemeanors. Thanks to Prop 47’s passage, tens of thousands of California inmates are now eligible for release, and nearly a million Californians are eligible to be freed from the label “felon.”
Similar change is needed across the country. For four decades, we have embraced the lie that incarceration makes us safer—that it protects us from “dangerous” people. Mass incarceration, does not make us safer; it makes us more vulnerable. It destroys communities, wastes resources, separates families, ruins lives. It is the result of policies that criminalize poverty and make prisons and jails become warehouses for deeply damaged people with little or no access to mental health or substance abuse treatment. Instead, let’s invest those resources in our neighbors and family members so they don’t end up in the system to begin with, and if they do, so they can get back on their feet.
The 46 people whose sentences the president commuted last Monday are just a drop in an ocean of lives that have been torn apart by the War on Drugs and the era of mass incarceration. It’s time to stop warring and start healing.