The prison system in the U.S. only perpetuates crime and does nothing to help the people it incarcerates.
Drug-based crime has often been used to win presidencies: Nixon, Reagan and Clinton are all examples of presidents that campaigned on anti-drug policies. The effects of this have been noticeable. The U.S. has the highest incarcerated population in the world, with around 2 million people being held in prisons or jails—about 400,000 of that 2 million are for drug offenses.
Punishment for these crimes rarely stops repeat offenses; instead, the data shows it does the opposite.Approximately 76% of drug offenders commit another crime within five years of release. This is typically caused because of harsh prison environments as well as a lack of outside support for released inmates.
Possession of drugs is often a felony, which can sentence any person to a year in prison as well as fines numbering in the thousands of dollars. Misdemeanors can also be an extremely harmful sentencing, as even just 30 days in jail can throw a person’s life completely off track. They may be fired from their job and have trouble getting rehired once their employer learns they have a criminal record of any kind.
The punishment of drug possessors, who are likely struggling with addiction, is one of the many immoral aspects of the prison system in America. These people are forced into horrific conditions alongside inmates who committed violent crimes such as murder, robbery or assault. Then, once they are released, they must attempt to reconstruct their life to the best of their ability. And if they fall back into their drug habits and are caught—which is likely, as they are not actually being rehabilitated when they are cut off from their addictions—they will be given an even harsher sentence.
Since the ‘80s, drug arrests have primarily affected Black people. This started with the anti-Vietnam War movement in the late ‘60s, as Black people were more inclined to organize against the government in protests. Almost all anti-war protestors smoked marijuana, both white and Black, and this caused the war on drugs to begin,as it was a way to put down these movements. A decade or so later, the crack epidemic began, and the portrayal of Black people in the media exacerbated fears of not only drugs but Black people in general. This has led to Black people making up 40% of the prison’s population and being primary targets of arrest.
There are alternatives to imprisonment. Some countries have decriminalized drug use, with the results showing much more promise than America’s current system. Portugal is one such country. In July, 2001, Portugal became the first country to decriminalize drug use and possession. Selling drugs in Portugal is still illegal, but simply having it on you and using it is not. Within a few years Portugal saw success, with overdoses dropping from around 400 a year to 290 and HIV cases dropping from 1,400 a year to just 400. Incarceration had also dropped significantly.
There is not just international change either. In 2020, Oregon passed Measure 110, which effectively decriminalized drug possession if it was a small amount. However, this has not necessarily worked in Oregon’s favor. Overdoses went up in the year since the law was enacted. However, it is an important first step in destigmatizing drug use, which plays a large role in fatalities as users choose not to get help out of fear or shame. If more states were to follow suit with Oregon, then eventually the U.S. may see a decrease in incarceration and death, similar to Portugal.