On his website, President Obama offers us a “seat at the table,” which is the equivalent of citizens offering policy prescriptions to his administration. This unprecedented effort to increase citizen participation in the policy making process has the added benefit of simultaneously empowering citizens in a way that our government has not done and has to be what the campaign meant by “change we can believe in.” The criticism of whom he has appointed misses the mark concerning what I believe his change mantra signifies. Since the president appears to be open to unsolicited advice, I offer the following criminal justice recommendations and justification for these suggestions.
President Obama and the 111th Congress should consider ending drug prohibition.
“Consider the consequences of drug prohibition today: 500,000 people incarcerated in U.S. prisons and jails for nonviolent drug-law violations; 1.8 million drug arrests last year; tens of billions of taxpayer dollars expended annually to fund a drug war that 76% of Americans say has failed; millions now marked for life as former drug felons; many thousands dying each year from drug overdoses that have more to do with prohibitionist policies than the drugs themselves, and tens of thousands more needlessly infected with AIDS and Hepatitis C because those same policies undermine and block responsible public-health policies.”
As the preceding paragraph illustrates, “The War on Drugs” has been a dismal failure and has gifted nonviolent African Americans offenders, especially males a permanent handicap—a lifetime of limited opportunities. The collateral consequences of a drug conviction which limit African Americans opportunities are:
The denial of financial aid and work study .
Lifetime ban on cash benefits and food stamps.
Lifetime ban on public housing.
Termination of parental rights and ban from becoming adoptive or foster parents.
Remove the felony conviction question on applications of employment.
By attaching a drug provision to the Higher Education Act of 1998, it has the effect of making education even less attainable to minorities who are the ones adversely impacted by this policy. The interesting aspect of this drug provision is that a murderer, rapist or pedophile can get financial aid but a non violent drug offender cannot obtain financial aid. The provision has a racial element to it and it should be done away with to allow young people who made a mistake in their “youthful exuberance” a chance at a second opportunity—our past president is a prime example of what people can do with second chances. To place in the proper perspective, consider the fact that “whites and blacks use drugs at almost exactly the same rates.” It follows that since there are five times more whites than African Americans then at least there are five times more whites using drugs. Strangely, Graham Boyd (2001) finds that “African-Americans are admitted to state prisons at a rate that is 13.4 times greater than whites, a disparity driven largely by the grossly racial targeting of drug laws. In some states, even those outside the Old Confederacy, blacks make up 90% of drug prisoners and are up to 57 times more likely than whites to be incarcerated for drug crimes.”
The drug war has made us the imprisonment capital of the world and for the first time “1 in 100 adults are in jail or prisons.” This number is even more perverse when you consider that 1 in 9 black males between the ages of 20-34 are in prison. The policy of incarcerating us out of the problem has not worked and it has ironically increased correctional expenditures by 127% versus 21% for higher education over the years 1987 – 2007. The drug war has become so punitive that in many states you cannot get a barber license if you have a drug conviction. This war clearly needs to be rethought about.
President Obama speaks of providing a $4,000 education credit for college students who will commit to public service but for those 200,000 students who have been denied access to a college education because of this ban, how do you make education affordable for them? Thus, it is my recommendation that this act be repealed.
A second inimical impact of a drug conviction is felony disenfranchisement. This post slavery policy has rendered 5 million people ineligible to vote for President Obama. Of course the group that is disproportionately impacted by this policy is African Americans. Considering the number of new voters President Obama brought to the polls, think how much larger his mandate could have been. Uggen and Manza contend that Republicans benefit from felony disenfranchisement laws. They look at presidential and senate elections from 1972-2000 and contend that “felon disenfranchisement laws, combined with high rates of criminal punishment, may have altered the outcome of as many as seven recent U.S. Senate elections and at least one presidential election.” Research asserts that felons are more likely to vote democratic. President Obama may have been able to obtain the filibuster proof 60 senate seats needed if it were not for felony disenfranchisement laws. Chambliss may have lost the senate race if it were not for Georgia’s felony disenfranchisement laws decimating the African American vote in Atlanta. Southern states are notorious for disenfranchisement laws. These laws should be repealed because they continue a person’s punishment although they have completed their debt to society.
Another recommendation is to repeal the lifetime ban on cash benefits and food stamps. This policy fails to consider that ex-prisoners have families to and it undermines their ability to reintegrate back into society. An unintended consequence of this ban is that it encourages recidivism, destroys nuclear families, and perpetuates the cycle of crime because it forces the ex-offenders to rely on state, local, or privately funded services which are scare. With limited options they are more likely to reoffend. Additionally, the ban removes federal funds that could be used to help people with drug felony convictions reestablish themselves as productive, lawful members of our society.
A fourth recommendation is to repeal the ban on public housing for those convicted of a drug offense and for those in a drug treatment for using illicit drugs. This ban is one of the more harmful ones because it decimates any chance of reestablishing social networks, which have been shown to increase employment opportunities. Furthermore, the ban forces many ex-offenders into the streets or shelters were many of the activities they are attempting to navigate away from await them. Worse of all, the ban keeps many of them form rejoining their family members who live in public housing and in many instances are their sole safety net after incarceration.
Still another recommendation for the Obama administration is to amend the awful child welfare policy, the Adoptive and Safe Families Act of 1997 which terminates the parental rights of parents who have run afoul of the law for drug offenses. Termination of a parent’s right should be a last resort. This ban fails to consider how incarceration and termination of parental rights “consigns children to the juvenile justice and social welfare bureaucracies. These children are at increased risk for many of the social ills that trip up younger members of our society, including truancy, teen pregnancy, drug use, gang involvement and sexually transmitted diseases and infections.” Too often, many of these children follow their parents to jail after bouncing around these social bureaucracies.
A final recommendation for the Obama administration is to make it illegal for employers to ask the question have you ever been convicted of a felony. This question is extremely prejudicial for African American males. Devah Pager (2003) demonstrates that a white felon is more likely to obtain employment than a black male without a felony conviction. A black felon according to her has the worse employment prospects. Removing the felony question does not preclude companies from performing background checks on those applying for jobs which require a background check. It stops them from discriminating based on a felony conviction not relevant to the job the ex-offender has applied for.
Currently, criminal justice policies punish ex-prisoners long after they have completed their sentences. It is not surprising that in 1994, 67% of the prisoners released returned to prison within three years of their release. The enumerated collateral consequences make reintegration back into society unrealistic for many ex-offenders. Other recommendations for the Obama administration are: suspend child support arrears while incarcerated; ban drivers license suspension because of late child support payments due to incarceration; amend drug free school zone policy in urban communities because cities like Newark, NJ, the entire city is a drug free school zone. Under no means do I support selling drugs near a school. The policy needs to be revised because let’s say I am 1200 feet from a school zone and the police turn on their lights signaling me to stop and it takes me 200 feet to stop. If they find drugs in my car I am charged for selling drugs within 1000 feet of a school. As a result, I am handed a mandatory sentence because of where I stopped my car. This policy has racial underpinnings as well. Rural communities are unlikely to have many residents charged with mandatory sentences under this policy because of how spread out they are.
Finally, public and private prisons exploit inmate labor and they pay them pittance although they land million dollar contracts from companies like Dell, Victoria Secret and other Fortune 500 companies. Inmates should receive a livable wage and be allowed to save whatever money is left over after restitution and child support payments etc. Considering that many are barred from receiving government assistance, money they earn while in prisons could make the difference between them successfully reintegrating back into society within that three year period when many of them reoffend. One final recommendation is to remove payphone surcharges in prison. Prison pay phones charge inmates six times as much to make a call and all calls from prison are collect. A pay phone in prison makes $15,000 a day.