Conservatives have this much right: It’s remarkable how much havoc poorly made public policy can wreak. Way back in 1986, when a Democratic Congress hastily and overwhelmingly passed the Anti-Drug Abuse Act—the first step in stacking judicial power in the hands of prosecutors rather than judges and juries—members likely never imagined it would set in motion the wildly expensive, 25-year “war on drugs.” Few realized they were launching a truly militaristic campaign that, among its many perversities, would target tens of thousands of people like Regina Kelly.
This weekend, Hollywood takes its latest swipe at the drug war by telling Kelly’s story in the new film "American Violet." "Traffic" it ain’t. There are no white teens spiraling into the abyss of black drug ghettos. No tough-guy white dads. Rather, this is finally a movie specifically concerned with the drug war’s collateral damage in poor, black neighborhoods. And as hard as some of the story is to believe, it’s depressingly real.
Kelly is an apt poster child for one of the drug war’s most odious quirks: the way in which federal money and hysterical crime headlines have made prosecutorial corruption into great politics.
All over the country, federal dollars have funded the work of quasi-military drug teams inside police forces. They’re tasked with fighting the drug war, too often staffed with cowboys and usually given wide-ranging authority. And in Hearne, Texas, the drug task force systematically raided Kelly’s housing project, Columbus Village, annually for 15 years.
Problem is, the local prosecutor who oversaw the task force was less interested in criminal justice than racial cleansing. The annual Columbus Village raids rounded up innocent black residents in what District Attorney John Paschall allegedly defined as a campaign to rid the county of black people in general and Columbus Village in particular. Court documents describe chilling details: Masked white officers pointing guns and shouting orders at a woman they knew to be deaf and dumb; cops arresting a man for a drug deal they said occurred while he was already in jail; Paschall joking before one raid that it was “time to round up the niggers.”
On Nov. 2, 2000, in one of the routine sweeps, cops arrested the then-24-year-old Kelly, while she was at her job waiting tables. They charged the mother of four young girls with selling crack in a drug-free school zone and set her bail at a whopping $70,000. That was a mistake because Kelly wasn’t only innocent, she was brave.
Kelly agreed to be the lead plaintiff in an ACLU class action suit charging racial bias in the sweeps. The suit soon became national news because it highlighted a larger trend—similar raids were happening all across Texas. As in Hearne, prosecutors shoved dozens of black defendants at a time through the system based on the word of one accuser, often someone who they’d harassed into compliance.
In Hearne, Kelly’s suit charged, the 15 people rounded up in the 2000 raid were accused by Derrick Megress—a relapsing drug abuser with mental health problems who’d been charged with burglary, and who Paschall threatened with 60 to 99 years if he didn’t cooperate. The suit charged, among other things, that Paschall compiled a list—which included the names of the NAACP chapter president’s “boys”—and had Megress name them as drug dealers. The county settled the ACLU class action rather than see the details unfurl in court.
American Violet offers a compelling recounting of this particular case, but it also not-so-subtly points viewers to the bigger picture. It’s easy to dismiss Kelly’s story as typically wrongheaded Texas-style justice. But while the details may be extreme, the outcomes are routine. The local prosecutor is less the villain than the broader system that empowered him.
The primary problem the case points to is that the vast majority of people charged with drug crimes never see a judge or a jury. Instead, like Kelly, prosecutors present them with massive sentences, ratcheted up through mandatory minimum statutes and handed out at a prosecutor’s discretion rather than a judge’s. They face wildly unattainable bail. They’re assigned an overwhelmed and underfunded public defender. And they’re offered a plea deal. Few people are stupid enough to put up a fight—particularly the low-level, nonviolent offenders who are mere cogs in a larger drug business.
Which allows local prosecutors to ratchet up conviction rates, campaign as tough-on-crime and collect federal money for their work in the drug war. Meanwhile, the U.S. snares more people in its criminal system than any country on earth, does little to impact drug abuse and spends billions on the effort. Nationally, we spent $45 billion last year to keep 7.2 million Americans under criminal supervision, either as inmates or parolees. Many of those people are permanently derailed—as convicted felons, they can’t get public assistance, can’t live in public housing, can’t get student financial aid, often can’t vote.
All of this started in July 1986, when congressional Democrats rushed to appear tougher than Ronald Reagan in the wake of Boston Celtics’ recruit Len Bias’ cocaine-fueled death. In just four days, without hearings and with little input from anyone other than law enforcement sources, the first drug-war law sailed through Congress. It passed the Senate on a voice vote. The rest is sad history—a series of ever-increasing mandatory penalties and ever-decreasing judicial discretion driving mass arrests of young black men, locked up for decades for nonviolent crimes.
As it opens this weekend, American Violet makes a compelling case for finally ending this failed, wrongheaded war. This weekend also wraps up Congress’ Easter recess. Let’s hope every member grabs a bunch of colleagues from the state legislature and catches a Saturday matinee before heading back to work.
Kai Wright is a senior writer for The Root.