Tag: criminal justice

The “drug war” is over?

Over the years, the so-called global “war on terror” (or “war on terrorism”) has had its ups and downs as a foreign policy framing device. The George W. Bush administration, of course, relied upon the frame to sell virtually all its major foreign policies over a period of many years — even though the Pentagon at one point preferred “struggle against violent extremists.” Britain stopped using the phrase some years ago (at least in the Labor government).

Barack Obama’s administration allegedly abandoned the phrase very early in his term — in favor of alternatives like “overseas contingency operations.” However, with a little searching, it’s not difficult to find official spokespersons (like Robert Gibbs)  — or even the President himself — continuing to use those words after announcing that they wouldn’t.

Somehow, I missed the Obama administration’s similar early announcement that it was also going to stop using the phrase “war on drugs.” The Wall Street Journal reported this story May 14, 2009:

The Obama administration’s new drug czar says he wants to banish the idea that the U.S. is fighting “a war on drugs,” a move that would underscore a shift favoring treatment over incarceration in trying to reduce illicit drug use.

In his first interview since being confirmed to head the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, Gil Kerlikowske said Wednesday the bellicose analogy was a barrier to dealing with the nation’s drug issues.

“Regardless of how you try to explain to people it’s a ‘war on drugs’ or a ‘war on a product,’ people see a war as a war on them,” he said. “We’re not at war with people in this country.”

We haven’t discussed the “war on drugs” very much here at the Duck of Minerva, but it has long had a significant effect on public policy — especially domestic policy as recently demonstrated in a drug-themed issue of The Nation. This is an excellent summary of the costs from Ohio State Law Professor Michelle Alexander’s piece in that issue:

More than 30 million people have been arrested since 1982, when President Reagan turned Nixon’s rhetorical “war against drugs” into a literal war against poor people of color. During the past few decades, African-American men, in particular, have been arrested at stunning rates, primarily for nonviolent, relatively minor drug offenses—despite data indicating that people of all races use and sell drugs at remarkably similar rates. In some states, 80 to 90 percent of all drug offenders admitted to prison have been African-American, and when released they find themselves ushered into a parallel universe where they are stripped of many of the rights supposedly won during the civil rights movement. People labeled felons are often denied the right to vote and legally discriminated against in employment, housing, access to education and public benefits—relegated to a second-class status for life simply because they were once caught with drugs.

She put the economic cost of the war at “more than $1 trillion in the past few decades.”

Clearly, America’s “carceral state,” which Charli recently mentioned, reflects the outcome of the drug war. Of course “contact with the criminal justice system” is going to be a “significant predictor of civic and political disengagement and mistrust of government.” Felons are frequently denied the freedom to vote.

I recall more than 20 years ago thinking about writing a rhetorical analysis about George H.W. Bush’s use of the phrase “war on drugs” to rally support for his domestic and foreign initiatives. But I didn’t. The cold war was still raging, my dissertation concerned strategic defense — and I needed to find a tenure track job. Members of the IR Copenhagen School have long discussed the securitization of this issue, but few American IR scholars have taken it very seriously — even when it occasionally spilled over into “hot” rather than merely metaphorical war.

The Obama administration doesn’t use the phrase “war on terror,” but has escalated American intervention in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The “war in Iraq” has ended, but 50,000 American troops remain to help provide security.

I suspect the decision to stop using the phrase “war on drug” will have similar policy consequences. Indeed, that recent issue of The Nation demonstrates the continued failings of U.S. policy in this area.


Our Carceral State

Vesla Weaver and Amy Lerman have published a study in the American Political Science Review on the relationship between contact with the US criminal justice system and disaffection from US government and politics. They find that even after controlling for other important factors, contact with the criminal justice system is a significant predictor of civic and political disengagement and mistrust of government.

Contact with the criminal justice system is greater today than at any time in our history. In this article, we argue that interactions with criminal justice are an important source of political socialization, in which the lessons that are imprinted are antagonistic to democratic participation and inspire negative orientations toward government.

Since you won’t be able to access the article unless you subscribe to the journal, and since there’s a lot of interest in the blogosphere right now in how social scientists generate probabilistic causal claims and what can be inferred from them to specific cases, let me explain a little bit how the authors conducted the study. The study is based in large part the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health (aka Add Health), a study that follows youth over their life course and provides a nationally representative sample of school-age people in the United States. The survey contains statistically significant data on thousands of US citizens, including their criminal justice histories, plus data on political attitudes and practices. To ensure that other variables aren’t explaining both contact with the criminal justice system and political beliefs/practices, the authors control for age, sex, household income, education, stability of family relations, employment, citizenship, and minority status among others things. (They also used a second source of data specifically on fragile families to corroborate their findings.)

The reported results: contact with the US criminal justice system is strongly related to a much decreased likelihood of voting or registering to vote in elections, of stated trust in government, and of civic engagement generally (though those results were weaker due to poor data):

“People who experienced an encounter with criminal justice institutions were much less likely to believe that it was important to vote, serve on a jury, volunteer time to community service, or serve in the military, and this effect grew starker with more severe encounters… those who experience punitive interventions – from police questioning to incarceration – are much less likely to seek out civic society and participate in cultural, social or political groups.”

While these results may or may not be especially counter-intuitive, Weaver and Lerman point out studies of the effects of policy on civic engagement and beliefs have focused much more the redistributive rather than punitive policies so far, and this should obviously change. I hope political scientists will find a way to examine whether these relationships hold true cross-nationally as well, since the only inferences we can make from this study concern the US.

[cross-posted from Lawyers, Guns and Money]



I’ve been traveling in the southwest and reading different newspapers than I usually do. As a result, I learned that Phoenix is America’s “kidnapping capital.” The LA Times published the AP story I saw on December 27:

The latest figures show Phoenix had 302 kidnappings in the first 11 months of 2009, when the city recorded an average of 27 abductions each month. The city had reached a 10-year high in 2008 with 359 kidnappings. The expected decline in 2009 would mark the first decrease since 2005, when the city had 228 kidnappings….

Over the last several years, immigrant and drug smugglers have snatched their rivals, associates or their family members as a way to collect unpaid debt for lost trafficking loads, make quick money from crews flush with cash or as retaliation for earlier abductions.

Clearly, this is a transnational problem — violence from Latin America spilling over into the US according to one authority quoted in the piece:

The kidnappings first came to light in Phoenix in 2005, but they rose as overall violence associated with immigrant and drug smuggling intensified in Arizona, a busy hub for transporting illegal immigrants and marijuana into the country. From there, the city earned the unofficial distinction as America’s kidnapping capital and drew parallels to Mexico, which has long had a kidnapping problem and is the staging point for smuggling operations.

Kidnappings in Phoenix are dwarfed by reported cases involving children, many of which involve family members in custody disputes.

To address the problem, Phoenix set up a special police squad. Officials seem hopeful that it is working, but I doubt that there’s enough data to tell.


Three Ideas for Fixing Our Prison System

The US needs prison reform as badly as it needs affordable health care.

I haven’t written about this before. Because America does such an excellent job of compartmentalizing its incarcerated population from its elite, those of us living in eastern urban areas rarely need to think about our prisons. Traveling across the wastelands of Kansas and Nebraska and Utah, however, where one is as likely to see a chain gang as an elk, and where the signs remind you not to pick up hitch-hikers instead of not to litter, one begins to give this some this thought. In 1998, the US surpassed the former Soviet Union as the world’s foremost jailer, with approximately 1 in 100 Americans behind bars as of last year. Compared to other advanced industrialized countries, the US imprisons 5 times more of its citizens per capita; half of these are African American.

The political economy of this “prison industrial complex” coupled with the political incentives to appear hard on crime have contributed to a dysfunctional and inhumane system. Our prisons are brutally overcrowded: in Chino, where a riot occurred early this month, 5,900 inmates were in a facility designed to hold 3,000. Treatment of prisoners often falls far below human rights standards. In June this year, Marcia Powell, a 48-year-old behind bars for prostitution, died of heat exhaustion after being left in an outdoor holding cell in 108-degree Arizona heat, prompting both an investigation by the Arizona’s Department of Corrections and questions by feminist activists as to why prositutes are being imprisoned in the first place, whereas those who make use of them rarely fall afoul of the law? Indeed, 82% inmates are imprisoned for non-violent “crimes”: thanks to the three-strikes-and-you’re-out law, one man is serving a life sentence in California for stealing a $2.50 pair of socks.

We should also bear in mind the impact on communities, families and society at large of such a highly-incarcerated population. As Vesla Weaver argued in a presentation I saw last Spring, incarceration shapes the lives not only of inmates but of their partners (who must now coordinate employment, social schedules and even their attire according to the rules attending prison visits), their children (many of whom lose parents for misdemeanors) and communities (who lose social capital when significant numbers of their young men are behind bars). The adverse effect of prison policies on families is too rarely a consideration in the political process.

I know much too little about this topic to offer anything like a comprehensive recipe for change, but here are three specific ways to improve things behind which readers of this blog can throw their support:

1) Federally enforce a zero tolerance policy on prison rape. In addition to sometimes-lethal physical and mental abuse, sexual abuse of inmates is not only commonplace but so acceptable in US society as to be fodder for political satire. (Interesting that what we are quick to condemn when inflicted on political prisoners is so easy to consider commonplace when targeted at those we consider “criminal.”) A a 2001 Human Rights Watch report showcased the epidemic of prison rape in the US. Congress responded by creating the Prison Elimination Act of 2003, largely designed to generate facts and recommendations. The Congressional National Prison Rape Elimination Commission, released its five-year study this past June, showing based on tens of thousands of interviews that nearly 60,000 inmates have suffered sexual abuse in prison. It also shows that more prisoners are abused by staff than by other inmates, and that gender minorities are at the greatest risk. The NPREC’s recommendations are that 5% of federal funding for prisons be contingent on states’ reduction in incidence rates in accordance with standards now being drafted by the Attorney General. But 5% may be much too low a penalty to check such well-entrenched abuse; and at any rate the federal government will also need to consider providing resources for states to implement the standards, which would involve a significant overhauling of prison culture.

2) Reform America’s sex-offender registry. Incarceration even for minor abuses has lasting effects even once a person leaves prison, due to stigma, lack of resources for reintegration, and political disenfranchisement. This is a broad problem but in no realm is it more dysfunctional the the national sex-offender registry, as outlined in a detailed and damning expose in The Economist. This system is a net which sweeps up so many people convicted under Puritanical US laws for things as minor as sleeping with a partner while both are underage, that it is rendered almost useless at the task of helping parents protect their children from genuine predators, yet it ruins the lives of not only “convicts” but their familes as well, preventing them from holding down jobs or taking their children to the playground. I concur with the proposals laid out in that article, which include:

“Instead of lumping all ‘sex offenders’ together on the same list for life, states should assess each person individually and include only real threats. Instead of posting everything on the internet, names could be held by the police, who would share them only with those, such as a school, who need to know. Laws that bar sex offenders from living in so many places should be repealed, because there is no evidence that they protect anyone: a predator can always travel. The money that a repeal saves could help pay for monitoring compulsive molesters more intrusively—through ankle bracelets and the like.”

3) Finally, restore voting rights to ex-cons.The patchwork of state laws disenfranchising over four million former felons from voting in federal elections nearly ensures that this population will be overlooked by the government. Last month, Sen. Russ Feingold and Rep. John Conyers introduced parallel bills in the House and Senate that would restore voting rights in federal elections to those currently denied this civil right. I can see nothing to lose from such a proposal and much to gain: citizens more likely to have a stake in the rule of law, a government more responsive to its incarcerated population, and a nation better served overall by a more humane criminal justice system. You can support this action by clicking here or linking to this post.

I could go on – and so can you, in comments. Point is, health care reform has dominated the headlines this summer, and it is of course widely overdue. But let’s not lose sight of glaring problems in the criminal justice system, and incremental changes underway that need our attention, support and oversight as well.


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