Background and Perspective
Nearly 2.3 million people are now incarcerated in the US, more than any other nation on the planet, including Russia, South Africa, and China.
The U.S. to an alarming degree manifests, as theologian Richard Snyder reminds us, a “culture of punishment.”
The U.S. to an alarming degree manifests as a “culture of punishment.”Theologian Richard Snyder
Weapons of punishment include a federal budget of over $47 billion which the U.S. government spends per year enforcing drug prohibition; mandatory minimum sentencing; seizures of property by law enforcement without due process; indiscriminate, and highly discriminatory, police sweeps as attempts to tamp down entire neighborhoods; and the privatizing of prisons. The ideology of this War is now embedded in our institutions of law enforcement and abetted politicians who fear being labeled soft on crime.
The War on Drugs when it was conceived in 1971 sought to conflate race and crime in the public mind for political purposes. This has worked. Even though drug use is roughly equivalent across ethnic groups, the vast proportion of those in jail are people of color. In 2006, one in every 15 black men was behind bars and one in every 34 Latino men, compared to one in 104 white men. As a result, young black men in most states are more likely to go to prison than college.
A spirit of punishment has been embedded in the national psyche since the earliest days of our nation. This theology of punishment is wrong and must be reversed.
Law serves many important functions. It keeps us from harming each other. But punishment in the hands of the criminal justice system to instruct personal morality results in arrests that brand people for life, even for minor possible offenses. It separates us from each other, and marginalizes individuals, most often people of color.
As clergy who oppose institutional racism, we have more than ample reason to seek alternatives to this Drug War on grounds of injustice. But our faith should take us even deeper. It should cause us to reject its very premise, based on our religious principles of compassion, healing, forgiveness, reconciliation, and love.
Recommendations and Next Steps
Specifically, we urge adoption of the following recommendations and next steps:
- Expand diversion programs that offer education and treatment as an alternative to prison for those with substance use disorders.
- Promote harm reduction programs that protect individuals who chose to use drugs.
- Reduce collateral consequences, including restoration of eligibility for housing, food stamps, education grants, and other supports for those seeking to rebuild their lives after a conviction for low-level drug use.
- Eliminate at the state and federal levels mandatory minimum sentences for drug possession.
- Support clemency for individuals sentenced under prior drug laws that would not be found guilty under present law.
- Pass medical cannabis in those states beyond the 29 that have already done so.
- Review at the national level models in other countries, including Portugal, that have decriminalized the possession of all drugs; and develop pilot projects to test this model.
- Pass either decriminalization, or taxation and regulation, of cannabis at the state level.
- Revise forfeiture laws that enable police to seize property of those accused but not convicted of drug law violation.
We declare our support for these recommendations and next steps, with the collective purpose of seeking an end to the failed War on Drugs and advancing a paradigm of “health not punishment” in our society.