Why are more Americans in jail for marijuana use than violent crime?

On any given day in the US, at least 137,000 Americans are in prison on drug possession, not sales, charges, says a new report that finds that the "tough on drugs" policies may be disproportionately affecting low-income, black Americans.

Sue Ogrocki/AP/File
Tim Yarbrough is pictured during an interview in Oklahoma City in July. Yarbrough, who recently completed a two-year prison term for drug possession, still owes more than $5,000, the result of 19 separate one-time fees, $40-per-month in supervision costs and other charges. Criminal defendants in Oklahoma can easily rack up several thousands of dollars in mandatory fees and court costs that often keep them locked in a cycle of poverty.

More people in the United States are now in jail for marijuana possession than for all violent crimes combined, a new study finds.

The report, released Wednesday by the American Civil Liberties Union and Human Rights Watch, points out that violent crime arrests in the US have dropped 36 percent in the past two decades. Meanwhile, arrests for drug possession – including marijuana and other illicit drugs – are up 13 percent. Those arrests tend to be concentrated in neighborhoods with high crime rates, where police officers are on the lookout for any offense. As a result, lower-income, black Americans are most likely to be arrested for possessing even trace amounts of illicit drugs. (Black Americans are 2.5 times as likely to be arrested on drug-related charges, according to federal data, even though they use drugs at the same rate as white Americans.) Those who can’t afford to post bail spend substantial amounts of time in jail, even before their case goes to trial.

Tougher sentencing was intended to get chronic repeat offenders off the street, reduce drug use, and protect public health. But the “tough on drugs” policy prevalent since the 1980s isn’t working, the report argues. Criminalizing drug possession is derailing individuals’ lives and hurting the families who depend on them, while doing little to prevent drug use and abuse.

“While families, friends, and neighbors understandably want government to take action to prevent the potential harm caused by drug use, criminalization is not the answer,” Tess Borden, the study’s author, said in a Human Rights Watch press release. “Locking people up for using drugs causes tremendous harm, while doing nothing to help those who need and want treatment.”

The report comes at a time when the Obama administration and a bipartisan effort in Congress has already taken steps at judicial reform. For example, the 2010 Fair Sentencing Act erased a 5-year-minimum sentence for simple crack possession. As The Christian Science Monitor reported, "much of the Obama administration’s work has been done courthouse by courthouse. For one, the Department of Justice has guided prosecutors to curb the use of mandatory minimums for drug crimes. But the president has also made broader strokes." 

Since 2014, the Obama administration expanded the criteria for clemency-seekers, leading to hundreds of who were given long-term sentences for drug charges to be released. 

But the ALCU report says that in some states, such as Texas, a “habitual offender” law means prosecutors still can push for longer sentences, including life sentences, for those with two prior convictions. The actual amount of the drug that individuals possess doesn’t matter.

And what most concerns many low-income Americans is the impact on families. While the accused are in jail, even before trial, they’re not earning a wage, meaning that in some homes the water and lights could be cut off. A woman in Louisiana with a prison record told the rights groups that because of her probation, her family could not get food stamps for a year. That means her children will be eating whatever she can find in the dumpster, she explained. It can also be hard for those arrested to find a job when they get out. 

“When you’re a low-income person of color using drugs, you’re criminalized…. When we’re locked up, we’re not only locked in but also locked out. Locked out of housing…. Locked out of employment and other services,” said one New York City man who had been repeatedly arrested for drug charges over the past 30 years.

Criminalizing drugs, the report says, can actually increase the risks associated with drug use. Driving traffic underground “discourages access to emergency medicine, overdose prevention services, and risk-reducing practices such as syringe exchanges.”

The report calls for an increase in rehabilitation programs and a move to treat drug use as a public health issue, rather than lumping it in with violent crime. That’s an approach the Obama administration is on-board with, Mario Moreno, spokesman for the Office of National Drug Control Policy, suggested. “We cannot arrest our way out of the drug problem,” he told CBS.

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