Mark Kleiman accuses Eugene Jarecki, director of the anti-drug war movie “The House I Live In”, of engaging in some truthiness:
I saw a screening of the anti-incarceration documentary The House I Live In some months ago. The film is right that prisons are horrible places and that we have vastly too many people in them. And it’s right that the “war on drugs” causes untold needless suffering. But the film strongly implies that the mass-incarceration problem consists mostly of non-violent drug dealers serving ludicrously long terms. False.
In fact, only about 20% of U.S. incarceration is on drug charges, and by no means are all of those folks non-violent. That’s still way too many drug prisoners; have drugs-only incarceration rate higher than the total incarceration rate of anyplace we’d like to compare ourselves with. But if we let them tomorrow, we’d still have four times our historical incarceration rate and four times the incarceration rate of any other OECD country, instead of five times.
I haven’t seen the movie yet, so I can’t say for sure that Kleiman is misrepresenting Jarecki’s viewpoint, but his use of “strongly implies” rather than “says” makes me very suspicious that he is. If Jarecki is merely saying that the drug war is primarily responsible for our mass incarceration problems, he’s correct. And Kleiman’s response that only 20% of those incarcerated are there for drug charges misses the bigger picture by a mile.
The most widespread damage done by the drug war isn’t necessarily that low-level drug offenders go to jail for a long time. The damage is done by the downstream effects of having that in your criminal record for the rest of your life. Even if someone arrested for simple drug possession never goes to jail, they often take plea deals that leave them with a criminal record. And that follows them everywhere, making it extremely difficult for many of them to get money for school, get into public housing, or find employment. People caught in this situation often become destined to a life of more serious and more violent crime.
So to imply that 80% of America’s prisoners would still be there regardless of the war on drugs is incredibly off-base. A significant number of those prisoners had their first contact with the criminal justice system as a result of the drug war and – as a result of that contact – were set on a path of likelier criminality. This phenomenon is explained very well by Michelle Alexander in “The New Jim Crow”. And with over 1 million drug arrests occurring annually, we’re putting enormous amounts of Americans down this path, particularly minorities and the poor.
In addition, this analysis doesn’t even take into account the fact that many of the violent offenders in the criminal justice system are there because of the prohibitionist policies that lead to violent confrontations within black markets in the first place. As one of the commenters to the post pointed out, the Global Commission on Drug Policy points out quite simply that “Drug Policy and the incarceration of low-level drug offenders is the primary cause of mass incarceration in the United States.” I have trouble believing that Kleiman would dispute that, but his post “strongly implies” that he does.