Michael K. Williams: The war on drugs wasn't meant to make America safer
We must demand policymakers support criminal justice reform, he says
Editor’s Note: Michael K. Williams is an actor, dancer and the American Civil Liberties Union’s ambassador for ending mass incarceration. He is best known for his roles in the “The Wire,” “Boardwalk Empire” and “The Night Of.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.
The war on drugs is arguably one of the most expensive and longest-running policy initiatives ever pursued by the American government. And this year, as it marks its 45th anniversary, it’s clear it’s also one of the most successful.
It’s destroyed lives, torn families apart, filled our jails and prisons and hijacked countless futures of black and brown youth – but that’s what it was supposed to do.
We now know, 45 years later, the war on drugs wasn’t meant to make America safer or more productive – it was meant to mute President Richard Nixon’s toughest critics, to criminalize black people and so-called anti-war hippies.
We now know, 45 years later, that the war on drugs is a war on people – and more specifically, black and brown people, whom it has sought to demonize and silence, criminalizing generations of youth of color and creating severe drug-sentencing laws ultimately to target and incarcerate communities of color.
And sadly, we now know, 45 years later, that it has accomplished many of its goals.
As of 2014, we had 2.2 million people in our nation’s prisons and jails – a 350% increase over the past four decades. This uptick took place at the same time we doubled down on policies born from the war on drugs, such as mandatory minimum sentencing.
These policies were designed to destabilize and demoralize black communities, and they have been effective in doing just that. Almost 60% of the people in prison today are people of color, and 1 in 3 black men born today face the likelihood of imprisonment. Nationally, black men are six times as likely to be incarcerated as white men in federal and state prisons, and local jails.
The effects of the war on drugs have been, and continue to be, devastating. The millions of parentless homes, the heartbreaking struggles with addiction, the financial desperation and the overall feeling that systems were built to hurt, not help, are painful consequences of racially motivated policies that continue rippling throughout our communities. This “war” has left an unforgivable blight on black communities across the country. And yet it still rages.
The war on drugs is a war on people and a war on progress. It’s a war on opportunity for a generation of black and brown Americans who have grown up conditioned to believe that prison is inevitable, and incarceration is imminent.
I’ve been lucky in my life. I’ve played some incredible characters on television and in film (a few of whom know the pitfalls of our country’s criminal justice system all too well), and it’s taken me pretty far for a kid from East Flatbush in Brooklyn.
But more than that, when I’ve struggled with addiction issues, I’ve been able to get the help and treatment I needed. I’ve been fortunate enough to have a network of support that has helped me through tough times and empowered me to pursue my dreams, a career, and success. I realize that no one’s life, least of all mine, would have been safer, better or more productive if I had been jailed for my addiction issues.
Fortunately for me, the war on people did not swallow me up. I was able to sidestep the trappings of a system designed to make me fail. But this isn’t the case for many young men and women of color.
But while we can’t erase the pain or impact of 45 years of policies designed to demoralize black Americans, we can organize, mobilize and take action to end the war on people and begin reversing some of its dire consequences. We can hold policymakers in Washington – and presidential candidates crisscrossing the campaign trail – accountable and demand they fulfill their moral and social responsibilities to make America the true beacon of justice and democracy it was meant to be.
In Washington, there has been positive movement toward reforming our system.
President Barack Obama has commuted more sentences – focused on drug offenses – than any other sitting president, and the Department of Justice has announced it will end the use of private prisons, removing a perverse financial incentive to incarcerate more and more Americans.
There is also an opportunity right now to begin dismantling some of the most disastrous policies on Capitol Hill. The Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, which the Senate is currently considering, wouldn’t undo the war on people, but it would reform some mandatory minimum sentencing – which has been used for decades to lock up black men and women across the country.
The changes would reduce mandatory sentences and give judges more freedom to hand down sentences that actually fit the crimes committed. It would expand programs to reduce the rate at which people return to prison, and invest in programs aimed at drug treatment and rehabilitation.
Our prisons are packed with people serving long, harsh sentences – in many cases for drug offenses. Instead of providing people with rehabilitation and treatment programs, let alone education and job training, we have put them into cages and have left them untreated, forgotten and ignored.
This has taken its toll on communities across the country – especially lower-income and economically disadvantaged ones.
Luckily, we’re already seeing some progress at the state level. Sixteen states, including South Carolina, Tennessee and West Virginia, already treat simple possession of drugs as a misdemeanor instead of a felony in some or all cases – and Oklahoma may join them in November. Many more states need to follow suit. Reclassifying certain drug possession offenses from a felony to a misdemeanor not only reduces a sentence, but it also recognizes that drug addiction and substance abuse are health conditions that are better treated than incarcerated and ignored.
This year, as the war on people turns 45, we must collectively acknowledge that it is one of the greatest American injustices ever committed, and turn outrage and frustration into action and progress.
We must demand that policymakers in Washington begin unraveling the policies that have shackled generations of young Americans by supporting criminal justice reforms such as the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, and start peeling back layers of policy that have criminalized and demoralized our communities for too long.
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And we must demand that presidential candidates make a pledge to voters that in exchange for our votes they will begin undoing the injustices that have left too many behind and blown over, and finally create a level playing field for all Americans – especially Americans of color.
There is no “cure-all” for what has become of our so-called justice system. But pursuing legislative reforms and calling for a new era in American justice on the campaign trail is a strong first step in empowering and teaching the next generation of young black Americans that incarceration isn’t inevitable.