The war on drugs - and the criminalization of possessing even a small amount of drugs - has been a failure, according to a new report that calls for prosecutors, parole boards, judges and legislatures to radically change practices to reverse "the collateral consequences" of the policies.
One reason there are so many people in Texas with life sentences for drug possession is that the state has habitual-offender laws. Alternatives to incarceration like probation also come with extreme conditions ― like frequent meetings at far-off locations during work hours ― leaving many defendants to feel that they're set up to fail and may be better off serving jail time.
"These wide-scale arrests have destroyed countless lives while doing nothing to help people who struggle with dependence", says Tess Borden, the author of the 190-page report, who interviewed more than 300 people across the country who have been arrested, prosecuted, or incarcerated for drug possession.
The report "lays bare the human costs of criminalizing personal drug use and possession in the U.S".
The changes will be a hard sell to communities plagued by drug-dealing and to the politicians they elect, predicted Eugene O'Donnell, a professor of police science at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and a former NYPD officer and prosecutor. "It punishes an activity that does not directly harm others". Seven of those people earned their sentences for possessing quantities of drugs weighing between 1 gram and 4 grams, or less than a typical sugar packet.
His case was not an outlier.
In fact, police make more arrests for marijuana possession alone than for all violent crimes combined.
The report concludes by calling on state legislatures and U.S. Congress to decriminalize personal use and possession of all drugs, and invest in risk reduction and voluntary treatment programs.
"I remember when they said I was guilty in the courtroom, the wind was knocked out of me", Jennifer Edwards, told Borden from jail in St. Tammany Parish, Louisiana.
"Imagine me in here for 20 years", the report quoted Bennett. "But this would be her first felony conviction, and even aside from the punishment of being incarcerated for a handful of months after pleading, the punishment would follow her for the rest of her life". There's 60 people in my cell, and only one of us has gone to trial. Borden also found that the drop in crime over the last few decades has occurred even as arrests for drug-related crimes continue to rise.
In every state for which we have sufficient data, Black adults were arrested for drug possession at higher rates than white adults, and in many states the disparities were substantially higher than the national rate-over 6 to 1 in Montana, Iowa, and Vermont. But the "tough on drugs" policy prevalent since the 1980s isn't working, the report argues. Drug use rates remain mostly unchanged from Nixon's time, and while some politicians insist the laws are there to deter trafficking, users are arrested four times as often as sellers.
"Do they realize what they are doing to people's lives in here?" said "Matthew", from the Hood County jail in Texas. Nationwide, rates of arrest for drug possession range from 700 per 100,000 people in Maryland to 77 per 100,000 in Vermont. "You have young people who did not engage in violence who get very long penalties, who get placed in prison and then are rendered economically unemployable, are nearly pushed into the underground economy, learn crime more effectively in prison - families are devastated".
Yet in an election year in which issues that are directly related to the war on drugs have played center stage, specifics on how to put an end to it have been lacking.
In Texas, where possession of even trace amounts of illegal drugs can lead to jail sentences, the report found that drug possession charges accounted for 78 percent of nearly 900,000 misdemeanor and felony drug cases that were handled by state courts from September 2010 through January 2016.
The large majority of drug cases are resolved through plea deals.