#EndTheWarOnDrugs: 7 Key Terms to Know

Our nation is making a shameful tradeoff: wasting billions of dollars on a failed War on Drugs and mass incarceration when we should be investing in the youth, families, and working folks who are the heart of any prosperous nation. 

One of the biggest roadblocks for folks who want to take action to reverse this tradeoff is language. 

Criminal justice policies are just not written in language most of us can understand (and “most of us” probably includes a lot of the so-called “experts”).

Here are definitions for seven terms that you’ll see in the letter sent to President Obama this week by a coalition of 175 celebrities and leaders organized by Russell Simmons and Dr. Boyce Watkins. 

1. Alternatives to Incarceration

About 25% of current inmates are incarcerated for non-violent drug offenses – they are in prison for simply being caught with drugs our government considers illegal.

Instead of locking these folks up, alternatives to incarceration include treatment for drug addiction, individual and family counseling, job training and continuing education, community service, and halfway houses.  These alternatives are much more effective at addressing the reasons people use, buy, or sell drugs, and cost a fraction of what prisons do. 

Supervision and monitoring with ankle bracelets or other electronic systems are also considered alternatives to incarceration, though they do little to address root causes leading to crime and drug offenses.

2. Criminal Justice System

The criminal justice system is made up of the people, institutions, and policies that interact with a person (or corporation) who has broken a law that carries criminal penalties.  

This system includes police (law enforcement); courts, judges, and lawyers; prisons, probation, and parole; and the laws themselves.  Other systems and policies such as school disciplinary policies and cuts to the social safety net also directly impact the criminal justice system.

Of course, many acts that harm numerous people are not considered crimes and are in fact legal, for example, the predatory lending that led to the 2008 economic crisis.

3. Mandatory Minimum Sentencing

When a person breaks a law that carries a mandatory minimum sentence of, say, five years, it means they will serve at least five years, no matter what the details of their case are. 

Judges in these cases have no leeway to give a shorter sentence or use alternatives to incarceration, such as when a person has never had a previous criminal offense or is the primary breadwinner or caretaker in their family.

4. Prison Industrial Complex (PIC)

To paraphrase Angela Davis, the PIC is made up of the public institutions, private companies, and policies that use prisons to “solve” social, political, and economic problems.  

One example of what the PIC looks like in action: Private prison companies propose building new prisons in places with high unemployment as a way to “create jobs” – even though the proposals can also require a guaranteed 90% occupancy rate for those prisons.

5. Recidivism

In our criminal justice system, recidivism is when former prisoners are rearrested, for the same or different crimes.  Many of the factors that lead to repeated crime are the same factors that lead to crime in the first place: addiction or other health issues, poverty, lack of work and educational opportunities. 

If prisons are meant to rehabilitate people and prevent crime,our recidivism rates indicate we have failed.  In fact, prisons worsen almost all of the factors most closely associated with recidivism.

6. Re-entry

Re-entry refers to a person’s transition out of prison and into their community.  The transition can be challenging, especially if the factors that led the person to break the law in the first place are unchanged. 

Depending on the state, people with criminal records may be denied public assistance, housing, employment, health services, and the right to vote, making it even harder for them to rebuild their lives and contribute to their communities.

7. Sentencing Disparity

Sentencing disparities often give people different sentences for the same crime.  For example, a person caught with five grams of crack cocaine would serve a sentence of five years in prison, while a person caught with powder cocaine would only face the same sentence if they had 500 grams. 

One of the main arguments for the disparity was the notion that crack is more addictive than powder cocaine.  While that notion has been disproven, what has been proven is that harsher sentences for crack have unfairly impacted Black communities, in spite of higher rates of usage among whites.

The 2010 Fair Sentencing Act signed by President Obama reduced the disparity to 18-to-1 going forward, and retroactively applied to a limited number of past cases.

Knowledge Is Power

These seven terms are a great place to start building up your knowledge about how the criminal justice system works (or doesn’t) and what needs to change.  

The more people understand, the better we’ll be able to counteract the power of private prisons and others invested in continuing the failed War on Drugs at the expense of our health and safety. 

Tell President Obama the Drug War needs to end