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Defending Obama's Drug Policy

Illustration for article titled Defending Obamas Drug Policy

The national "War on Drugs," which escalated in the 1980s with the creation of mandatory minimum prison sentences, notoriously drove criminal-justice stats off the charts. According to the Sentencing Project, drug offenders in state prisons have increased thirteenfold since 1980, and drug offenders currently account for half of the federal prison population. African Americans are disproportionately incarcerated for drug offenses, at a rate about 50 percent higher than that of whites.


Shortly after taking office, President Obama vowed to usher in a new approach to fighting drugs — to address not only drug abuse but also incarceration, racial disparities and re-entry. Gil Kerlikowske, director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, claims that over the past 2 1/2 years, the administration has indeed shifted the way the country handles addicts in the criminal-justice system.

Changes have included the Fair Sentencing Act, which reduced the 100-to-1 sentencing disparity between powder and crack cocaine; support for expanding drug courts instead of incarceration; and increased funding for state and local re-entry programs. On the other hand, federal prosecutions for drug-related offenses remain about the same, and funding to support the administration's drug-treatment efforts are substantially lacking.


We talked with Kerlikowske about the administration's drug policy — and how it stacks up against the challenges.

The Root: You're a strong advocate for having drug treatment available to people while they're in the criminal-justice system. Are you calling for these services to be offered just to those incarcerated on drug-use offenses, or for prisoners with any convictions but who may have substance-abuse problems?

Gil Kerlikowske: We have this program where they do voluntarily testing in 10 different jails around the country in Chicago, Sacramento, Portland and others. People coming into the jail system are asked a series of questions, they voluntarily submit a urine sample, and this program gives you an incredibly precise understanding of just what the level of drug involvement is with people who have been arrested. You have people arrested for all kinds of different crimes, but it's very clear that there's a drug nexus.

Now, there are people who are arrested for drug crimes who are not addicts. And there are people arrested for other crimes that have noting to do with drugs but really do have an addiction problem. So what we want to do is to, one, make sure that at the state and local level, and then at the federal level, there is an ability to make an assessment of what the issues are with that individual. If addiction and drug dependence is a problem, then making sure that they get the treatment needed would be important.


TR: What kind of responses are you getting from states to this idea of providing treatment for so many people?

GK: The states have been very responsive. They recognize that some of this money is federal dollars that helps them cover some of the costs of treatment. The other thing is that we've begun to move beyond just warehousing people in jail, hoping that they get better, releasing them back into society and then being surprised that the outcome is increased recidivism. Now, the more difficult part is translating that into dollars.


TR: How do you get around that difficulty of not having the funds to provide enough of these services?

GK: That's a key issue. But I think the more important part involving this, even in this tough economic time, is that we actually have this opportunity for people to collaborate and share information. A couple of the roundtables that we've held at the White House were so fascinating because we convened people, from police lieutenants to people who run various treatment programs, but several said they didn't know these programs existed.


Part of this is bringing people together in tough times and figuring out how to not be concerned about turf or who gets the credit. And they don't — they wouldn't be in that field if they were concerned about turf or credit. But we can use the [influence] of the White House to do these convenings. It's the kind of thing where you can really bring this to people's attention, and I think that's what we're doing. 

TR: Another part of your outreach involves the expansion of drug courts instead of focusing on incarceration. What kinds of gains is this yielding — are more of these popping up more around the country? It doesn't really seem that they are.


GK: In 22 years they've gone from one in Miami to about 2,600. So there's a pretty good growth, and I think what will spur the growth even further is this most recent piece of research by the Urban Institute. They compared sites over five years that had a drug court versus sites that did not, and they showed that the drug courts were not only cost-effective but reduced many of the problems associated with those offenders. So now you have the real hard data. For anybody that says, "Drug courts are soft on drugs and don't make a real difference," now you have a piece of really strong evaluative research that says they do make a difference.

TR: You, along with Attorney General Eric Holder, have encouraged states to evaluate mandatory minimum drug sentences — yet mandatory minimums still apply at the federal level. Even though the majority of prisoners are incarcerated at the state and local levels, can you get the ball rolling by ending mandatory minimums at least federally?


GK: The United States Sentencing Commission under Judge Patti Saris, and the Justice Department, are probably the best place to talk about that. That's a little far afield from my area. What we've tried to do is lay out a case about the importance of looking at addiction as a disease and public health issue. I think that's a good place for us to be.

TR: What efforts are under way to challenge "collateral consequences" — state laws that make access to welfare benefits, public housing and college student loans off-limits to people with past drug convictions?


GK: Well, there have been efforts at the state level. Before I was confirmed for this job, I was still the police chief in Seattle. The sheriff of Snohomish County, John Lovick, and I wrote an op-ed for the newspaper about changing the requirements to have your civil rights restored after conviction. They were really onerous and complex, usually requiring going through an attorney. We said that part of re-entry back into society ought to be that you get your civil rights restored without having to jump through a lot of hoops, and the state legislature actually changed that.

Another piece that's helpful is the very clear letter that [HUD] Secretary [Shaun] Donovan wrote to public housing administrators about what the federal law says about allowing people back into public housing after having been incarcerated [except in the cases of individuals convicted of manufacturing methamphetamine in public housing, and registered sex offenders], and that helping people get back into housing is a key component.


But I think that when you look at some of the speeches and discussions where we've talked about removing the stigma around drug addiction and getting people back in the community, and the fact that we've met with so many people that have successfully overcome what has been an incredibly difficult burden to them and their families … it wasn't often that federal officials have talked about things as forcefully as we are. I can't remember a time that I saw this much attention, especially by an attorney general, given to the importance of this.

Cynthia Gordy is The Root's Washington reporter.

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