Tess Borden talking:
Human Rights Watch and the ACLU undertook this yearlong investigation into just how failed the law enforcement approach to drug use is. And what we found is, first, that the scale of enforcement is absolutely massive. Every 25 seconds, someone is arrested. That accounts for 1.25 million arrests per year, more arrests, as you said in the opening, than any other crime, three times more than all violent crimes combined, five times more than drug dealing. So, the scale is just absolutely incredible and devastating.
Secondly, we found that the consequences of those arrests and prosecution can be sometimes lifelong, not only for individuals, but also for families. On any given day in the United States, some 140,000 people are behind bars just because they possessed a small amount of drugs for their own personal use, while each day tens of thousands more are cycling through jails and prisons, struggling to make ends meet on probation and parole.
We also found that a conviction for drug possession, often at the felony level, because in 42 states small amount of possession can be a felony offense—we found those convictions can keep individuals, and sometimes, again, entire families, out of public benefits, such as food stamps or Section 8 housing. It can make it hard to get a job, rent a house, next month to vote. And for noncitizens, of course, it can result in deportation.
And then, we also found that the enforcement of these laws is disproportionately impacting communities of color and the poor, without justification, just to drill down there. We know around the country black and white people use drugs at equivalent rates, and yet a black person is two-and-a-half times more likely to be arrested for simple drug possession than a white person. In many states, that ratio is significantly higher. And absolutely no state is at one-to-one. So, a black person is more than five times more likely to be arrested for, again, simple drug possession for personal use than a white person in North Dakota, New York, Minnesota, Montana, Iowa, Vermont. Here in Manhattan, a black person is 11 times more likely to be arrested than a white person. Again, that’s despite equivalent rates of use. So, these are racial disparities. But more importantly, under human rights law, this is racial discrimination.
So I met 149 people, 64 of whom were in custody when I met them, so in jails, in prisons. And what I found across the board was that these are mothers and fathers, these are friends and family members, who have been taken out of their lives and for whom it’s really hard to move on after the fact of prosecution. I met people like Corey Ladd in the video, like Steven’s family.
To flesh it out a little bit, Corey Ladd has a four-year-old daughter. She’s going to be five. We saw the picture of her. She’s going to be five in January. He was arrested in December, before she was born. He’s never held her. He’s never played with her outside of prison. The first time he held his baby girl in his arms was in the infamous Angola prison in Louisiana.
This is possessing half an ounce of marijuana. His prior convictions were also for drug possession. And because he was considered under Louisiana law a habitual offender, because he had habitual drug use, he was sentenced to 20 years. Twenty years. And so, his little daughter, Charlie, now thinks she visits him at work, when they go to prison. She could be a teenager going off to college by the time he comes home. And she’ll know by then that prison isn’t where her dad works.
Nicole is a mother of three young children I met in the Harris County Jail in Houston, Texas. Nicole was detained pretrial on two charges, both for residue inside drug paraphernalia. The prosecutors could have prosecuted her for misdemeanors, but instead they sought felony charges. Nicole was detained for three months, away from her young children, away from her newborn. The little baby, who I call Rose, learned to sit up on her own, when her mother was inside. And Nicole’s husband brought Rose to the jail. And when you visit someone in jail, there’s glass in front of you, and you often have to speak through a telephone. And so, the baby couldn’t, you know, reach out and feel her mother. Nicole couldn’t hug her, couldn’t congratulate her, because the baby doesn’t understand how to use a phone.
Nicole eventually pled guilty. In exchange, the prosecutor dropped one charge, and Nicole got a felony conviction for possessing 0.01 grams of heroin inside a plastic baggie, inside an empty baggie. Nicole would do a few more months in prison, in a Texas prison, and then she’d get to go home to her children. But now she’d be a, quote-unquote, “felon.” Now she would be a drug offender. And so, Nicole tells me, beyond even the months behind bars, what this meant was she was going to be punished for the rest of her life. She was in school. She was seeking a degree in business administration. She said she’d have to drop out of school, because now she wouldn’t qualify for student financial aid as a felon and a drug convict, quote-unquote. And she would lose—I’ll hurry up—she would lose food stamps. She would no longer be able to rent in her own name. She would no longer be able to feed her children. And she said, “You know, this is my whole life right there.” And for what?
three states, including Florida, disenfranchise people for felony convictions for a lifetime. Many other states have some level of disenfranchisement, whether it’s for a period of years or while one is finishing one’s sentence. And so, Trisha said, you know, she—you know, she had recalled registering to vote and that that was now, you know, a relic of the past, a fond memory that she’d never be able to capitalize on. And people told me across the board that they felt as though, you know, this conviction, whether it separated them from the voting box or other benefits, meant that their voice didn’t matter, meant that they were no longer really a citizen who mattered in the United States. And for—as we look at next month, going into an important election, felony disenfranchisement is literally keeping out people out of our democracy. And we know that drug possession arrests are, you know, the number one cause of people entering into the system that could be disenfranchising them.
We know, 45 years after the drug war was declared, that it hasn’t stopped rates of drug use, and it hasn’t stopped drug dependence, as we see with opiate use right now. So we’re saying we need to invest in a stronger public health approach. We need more evidence-based prevention, education around the risks of drug use and dependence, and voluntary treatment affordable in the community. I do think there’s been a very commendable shift in some policymakers’ and officials’ language towards public health. I would just caution, though, that we don’t invest stronger into the failed criminal justice approach, when we’re—you know, we’re afraid of drugs in this country right now. And I think what we need to say is most people who use drugs don’t become dependent. You know, the opiate epidemic is devastating, and it is tragic. And those people, though, deserve a public health approach instead.
We’re calling for the decriminalization of personal use and possession of all illicit drugs. That includes marijuana. That includes heroin, methamphetamines, cocaine—all drugs. And what we’re saying, to be quite clear, is not that everyone should go out and use drugs. What we’re saying is, for those people who use drugs and don’t harm others, the criminal law is simply inappropriate. For those people who use drugs and develop dependence, they deserve—they have a right to a health-based approach instead. And the state can still use other laws in place if people do put others in harm’s way. We still, you know, criminalize driving under the influence for alcohol. We can treat drug use, personal drug use, like we do alcohol consumption.
Aryeh Neier fellow at Human Rights Watch and the American Civil Liberties Union.
— source democracynow.org