Collateral Damage — America’s Drug War

There are 2.3 million people behind bars in this country — that is triple the amount of prisoners we had in 1987 — and 25 percent of those incarcerated are locked up for drug offenses. Taxpayers spend almost $70 billion a year on corrections and incarceration. The war on drugs has also been a war on communities of color. The racial disparities are staggering: despite the fact that whites engage in drug offenses at a higher rate than African-Americans, African-Americans are incarcerated on drug charges at a rate that is 10 times greater than that of whites.

When we incarcerate drug offenders, they stay locked up for lengthy periods of time — and often forever. We increasingly sentence them to life in prison under three-strikes-and-you’re-outlaws for petty drug crimes. Disappointingly, our Supreme Court has upheld the constitutionality of laws imposing disproportionate mandatory sentences of life without parole for simple possession of drugs. The ACLU has called for mandatory minimums to be abolished or reformed because they generate unnecessarily harsh sentences, tie judges’ hands in considering individual circumstances, create racial disparities in sentencing and empower prosecutors to force defendants to bargain away their constitutional rights.