Fifty years ago, President Lyndon Johnson declared war on poverty. Half a century later, the vicious cycle of poverty continues, and is exacerbated by the the federal government's War on Drugs, complete with draconian laws that have made us a country of intense over-criminalization. Historically, over-criminalization, particularly in terms of drug offenses, has disproportionately affected minorities. A recently published study, however, indicates that arrests of whites is also sharply on the rise, and by age 23, 38% of white males have been arrested. In contrast, by 23, 49% of black males and 44% of Hispanic males have been arrested. While the study does not break down the offenses, the drug war is undoubtedly behind many if not most of them.
Consistent with our nation's history, now that whites are making up such a large percentage of those arrested, our leaders will take notice, and, while it is unfortunate that action has come about because of this, changes in the way politicians view federal law will certainly be welcome.
By all accounts, 2014 is shaping up to be a year of much progress in the way our nation views the justice system. With legal marijuana being sold in Colorado, the American public is more ready than ever to take a second look at the way we treat and handle drug use. With Republicans decrying the breakdown of the family unit, and Democrats lamenting the unfairness of the justice system, drug reform gives politicians a chance to build consensus and find common ground.
For those serving time for drug violations, the difficulty of having a criminal record is immense. With severe implications for employment, housing and even public assistance, our justice system actively works against keeping families together, and maintaining an affordable and cost effective prison system.
With whites now making up such a sizable proportion of arrests, politicians are being forced to look at their own lives and choices, and use common sense when drafting laws. With prominent politicians on both sides of the political spectrum, such as former President George W. Bush, former Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum and President Barack Obama, having admitted to smoking pot, there's hope that drug laws can become more lenient, leaning toward helping people overcome substance abuse rather than forcing jail time.
In this regard, however, President Obama, heralded in 2008 as a candidate of social justice, has done more harm to people caught in the middle of the drug war than good. The Obama administration has made more arrests for marijuana related offenses than any administration before it. Most of the arrests under President Obama have been for possessing small amounts of marijuana, which puts him in a hypocritical position, given he has admitted to possessing and partaking in recreational marijuana use when he was younger.
To understand America's changing views on race and drug use, one needs to only look back as recently as 1986, when Congress passed the Anti Drug Abuse Act . The law mandated a minimum sentence of 5 years for possession of 5 grams of crack cocaine, and the same amount of time for possession of 500 grams of powdered cocaine. Laws such as these by their very nature disproportionately imprison minorities, who are more likely to possess crack cocaine vs powdered cocaine. As the large proportion of white victims of this law grew, politicians began to act. 24 years later, the law was amended by the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010. It's passage into law began a new era of liberalized perspective on drug use.
Drug war crusaders disillusioned by the hypocrisy of the D.C. establishment wing of both parties found their best hope in a bipartisan coupling of Senators hoping to reform the way we prosecute drug use. Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) came together on Twitter shortly before Christmas and discussed their plans to work to reform the justice system.
Sen. Paul has been in favor of reforming mandatory minimums, which require federal judges to give a minimum, and often life-altering, sentence for crimes as insignificant as marijuana possession. With Americans by and large becoming more accepting of marijuana (even in red states like Alaska), both Senators should find success in convincing their colleagues that federal prosecution can only be so effective.
While our country should be past the point where it waits for whites to become victims of a specific policy, our country needs to make the choice to become a nation of smarter laws, not simply more laws — and sooner rather than later.