Outgunned: Drug War Destabilizes Urban Families

The poverty sparked by the war on drugs creates cycles of violence and crime.

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Gun violence is an issue that disproportionately impacts some of this country’s most destitute communities—communities that are home to many broken families living in poor economic conditions, facing hopelessness and instability on a daily basis. A major contributor to this reality is the failed war on drugs, which has had an impact in two main ways: by perpetuating violence on the streets, and by tearing apart families and communities.
 
One of the most devastating results of our nation’s 40-year-old war on drugs has been a continued upsurge in the rate of violence associated with the purchase and sale of illegal substances. When the high-demand drug market is driven underground by law enforcement, the only way to resolve disputes has been with violence, turf wars and guns. And particularly in times of dire economic need, easily attainable access to the drug market becomes one of the only viable options to a sustainable income for some.
 
The war on drugs is also responsible for breaking up of the family unit, which serves to further destabilize vulnerable communities. According to the most recent data, 2.7 million children in America have at least one parent behind bars, and only 31 percent of black children grow up with both a mother and father in the home. According to the Pew Research Center, a child with one or more parent behind bars is significantly more likely to be expelled from school than the general population.
 
This deterioration of the family unit makes it more difficult for youth to stay in school, stay focused and remain goal-oriented, putting them at further disadvantage in breaking free from the cycle of poverty and violence that surrounds them.
 
This reality is both a tragedy and a travesty. It is a tragedy because the instability created in these communities continues to feed the culture of violence in our cities. It is a travesty because this reality is the result of a choice we made as a country—ironically, a choice to be “tough on crime.”
 
More than four decades ago, Richard Nixon rose to the presidency on a promise to crack down on crime, and once in office declared drugs as “public enemy No. 1,” essentially kicking off America’s war on drugs. In the decades that followed, America bore witness to the enactment of a slew of tough-on-crime policies, including some of the most severe mandatory-minimum sentences for drug crimes. These policies were a one-size-fits-all response that took away the court’s ability to enact sentencing to match the individual offender and offenses, and instead required the imposition of longer and tougher punishment for drug offenses.
 
Since then, the number of people incarcerated in America has quadrupled from 500,000 to more than 2 million. The United States is home to about 5 percent of the world’s population, but we house 25 percent of the world’s prisoners.
 
In practice, the war on drugs has done little to curb the use of illegal substances, yet it has ravaged low-income communities and communities of color. Two-thirds of prisoners with a child on the outside are locked up for nonviolent offenses. Many of these offenses are nonviolent drug offenses, which can be as minor as selling or possessing small amounts of marijuana.
 
This summer U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder offered hope for reform when he announced that he was changing Justice Department policy so that a certain class of low-level, nonviolent drug offender would be exempt from federal mandatory-minimum sentences.
 
In Holder’s words, “When applied indiscriminately, [mandatory minimums] do not serve public safety.  They—and some of the enforcement priorities we have set—have had a destabilizing effect on particular communities, largely poor and of color. And, applied inappropriately, they are ultimately counterproductive.”
 
If the attorney general of the United States can recognize the “destabilizing effect” of punitive sentencing, then state and local officials around the country should take note and follow his lead. States like New York and Colorado have reformed their drug laws in recent years, and more are set to follow.
 
If current trends continue, one in three black males born today can expect to spend time in prison during his lifetime. We have to challenge the vicious cycle of criminalization and incarceration that perpetuates poverty and enables violence. When we talk about the escalation of violence in our inner-city communities, we cannot ignore the role played by the war on drugs.
 
Dr. Niaz Kasravi is director of the NAACP Criminal Justice Program. Follow her on Twitter.

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