The word “criminalization” feels right and just to us. After all, it has the word “criminal” in it. Even if we feel that the punishments being inflicted are unduly harsh, at least we know who is being punished: criminals, law breakers, those who have shown disregard for the notions of right and wrong. But what if that weren’t the whole story? What if our culture of criminalization had far-reaching, unintended consequences we rarely even see or acknowledge, including forcing innocent people to suffer the loss of their homes, their families, their dignity, even their lives? This is what our culture of mass criminalization has produced. Its impact extends far beyond those who actually use or sell drugs.
How did I shift from being “pro-drug war” to realizing that it was totally wrong? I watched people who were addicts being arrested, taken into custody for mere possession of an “illegal” drug, when in reality, they were being put into a cage for possessing something they may or may not be addicted to and were doing no one any harm, except perhaps their own self. I struggled with the idea that I was part of an organization that was punishing people, often times severely, for being addicted to something. Not only would we put them in a cage, we would oftentimes financially ruin them. Their cars were towed, they needed to find bond money to post if possible. More times than not, they would lose their jobs for not being able to show up at work, they had to spend thousands and thousands of dollars for legal representation, families were split up, homes were lost. It slowly began to weigh on my mind.
A homeless shelter may be a refuge for those with no place to turn, but the entrance at its gate comes with a steep admission price: “Turn in your LINK card.” “Make your bed.” “Attend religious services daily.” “Stay sober.” “Be in by curfew.” At the Harm Reduction in the House 2016 conference which I attended last Friday, two young people who had experienced homelessness could quickly rattle off lists of requirements. These requirements mean that the choice to seek out a shelter or stay under the Wilson Street viaduct requires a careful cost and benefit analysis. If staying out late with friends or smoking marijuana gives you the comfort you need in the face of loss and trauma, the trade-off for four walls and a roof may not be worth it.
A powerful way to see the effects of the disastrous and misguided war on drugs is to work on a clemency petition. Tens of thousands of prisoners are warehoused in America’s prisons, serving long and sometimes life sentences for non-violent drug offenses. Thousands of federal prisoners are seeking commutations of their sentences from the only person who can grant them: the President of the United States. I have worked on two such petitions. In the process of preparing those petitions, you learn the life story of a person seeking mercy; you come to care deeply about what becomes of them; and you see up close how out of proportion the punishment often is to the drug crime. One of the petitions I worked on, sadly, was just denied. But the other has just been granted, one of 214 announced on August 3, 2016. Charlie Lawuary, age 64, was serving a natural life sentence for possession with intent to distribute crack cocaine. Because Charlie was alleged to have more than 50 grams of cocaine and he had two prior felony drug convictions, the life sentence was mandatory. Charlie was utterly remorseful; he felt deep shame that he had profited by addicting people. He was also completely rehabilitated and had earned a reputation as the inmate who, when a new prisoner arrived, used his own commissary money to buy needed supplies for the newcomer. Charlie has a large, supportive family eager to welcome him home. He has served 18 years of his sentence. Charlie will not get out of prison right away; the sentence will continue until August 3, 2018, and he must participate in a drug program before he can be released. But he and his family have hope now that he will not die in prison. My other prisoner–the one who was denied– too, has a close and loving family which is aching for him to return home. He has done everything possible to live an upstanding life since his conviction for his crime. He has done enough time. He should come home. So should thousands of others like him.
Eric E. Sterling is Executive Director of The Criminal Justice Policy Foundation, a private non-profit educational organization that helps educate the nation about criminal justice issues. He is a graduate of Haverford College, has been a Quaker for more than 40 years, and serves on the Ministry and Worship Committee of the Bethesda Friends Meeting. From 1979 until 1989, he was Counsel to the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on the Judiciary.