An American Gulag in The Making

An American Gulag in The Making
Posted by CN Staff on September 28, 2002 at 16:18:29 PT
By Doug McVay, Special to the Sentinel
Source: Orlando Sentinel
'We have created an American gulag," declared former drug czar Barry McCaffrey in 1996, describing the widespread and accelerating incarceration of drug offenders. Unfortunately, the American drug gulag has grown even larger since then. And it is a phenomenon that has a human and financial cost.In 1990, the entire federal prison system held a total of 56,989 inmates for all offenses combined. By the time McCaffrey made his observation in '96, there were 55,000 drug offenders in federal prisons. In 2000, federal prisons held almost 130,000 inmates, of which 75,000 were drug offenders.
Who are we sending to the drug gulag and why? The answer may be surprising.Many federal prisoners are first-time offenders. According to the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics, 46 percent of drug offenders convicted in federal courts in 1999 were first-time offenders. Of these, 91 percent were sentenced to 49.2 months on average.There is also a strong and growing federal focus on marijuana, even though more-dangerous drugs are becoming cheaper to attain. In 1997, nearly 19 percent of federal drug offenders were serving time for marijuana. In 1999, 30 percent of the drug offenders convicted in federal courts were marijuana offenders. In 1999, more than 90 percent of such offenders were sentenced to an average of 33.8 months in federal prison.For their part, the individual states hold more than a quarter of a million drug offenders in prisons, 21 percent of the total 1,206,400 state prison inmates. Frequently these are low-level, minor offenders: possession offenders account for more than 27 percent of all drug offenders in state prisons; more than 10 percent of all drug offenders in state prisons were convicted of marijuana offenses.The state of Florida, with the third-largest state prison system in the United States according to BJS, had an inmate population of 72,406 at the end of 2001. Nearly 18 percent of them are drug offenders.The road to the American drug gulag begins with an arrest. In 2000, the FBI reports there were 1,579,566 arrests for drug offenses nationally -- the third year in a row of 1.5 million-plus drug arrests, up from just over 1 million in 1990. Marijuana arrests numbered 734,497 in 2000, of which 646,042 were simple possession. These statistics don't include the quickie civil citations that some states allow. These are real arrests, each of which takes up at least a few hours of a police officer's, or a DEA agent's, time.To compare: Nationally, in 2000, there were 625,132 arrests for all violent crimes, and 1,620,928 arrests for all property crimes. The FBI notes that annually, less than half of all violent crimes are "cleared" -- that is, an offender is arrested and charged with the crime, though not necessarily convicted -- and only 16.7 percent of property crimes.Meanwhile, heroin and cocaine are available nationwide at lower prices and higher purity than ever before. Abuse indicators such as overdose deaths and emergency-room episodes are also at record highs.The farther along the road to the drug gulag we go, the more racist the system appears. The Household Survey reports that 77 percent of drug users are white, 12 percent are black, and 10 percent are Hispanic. Further, research from the National Institute of Justice indicates that most drug users usually buy their drugs from people of their own ethnicity/race.And there are almost equal numbers of white and African-American felony drug defendants in state courts. Yet, on conviction, African-American drug defendants are much more likely than whites to be sentenced to incarceration.As a result, within the drug gulag the racial divide is stark: African-Americans comprise 57.8 percent of drug offenders in state prisons and 40 percent of federal drug prisoners; whites, 23 percent of state drug prisoners and 24 percent of federal drug prisoners; and Hispanics, 17.2 percent of state drug prisoners and 33 percent of federal drug prisoners.In Florida's prison system, 24 percent of drug offenders are white, 73.4 percent are black. Unfortunately, Florida doesn't provide an estimate of the number of Hispanic offenders -- something the feds and most states started doing only relatively recently.How did the drug gulag grow so quickly? Much of the growth is the result of mandatory minimum sentencing laws. These laws give judges no leeway in sentencing, and are simply based on the type and quantity of drugs involved in the offense.Recoiling from the fact that their hands are tied, some senior judges on the federal bench now refuse to accept drug cases to protest these rules. There is growing resistance to these laws among the public as well, but until they change, the gulag continues to grow.Beyond the human cost, this American drug gulag is expensive to operate. The federal Bureau of Prisons is currently spending $3 billion a year just to incarcerate drug offenders. Even so, prison construction lags terribly behind demand: BJS reports that the federal prison system is 31 percent over its maximum capacity. Federal authorities have to build one new medium-size prison per month just to keep a bad situation from getting worse as the numbers, and the cost, continue to grow.Financing of the drug gulag also perpetuates its growth, because states are forced to make treacherous budget choices. In many states, spending on prisons far outstrips spending on education. According to a new report by the Justice Policy Institute, "Cellblocks or Classrooms?" from 1985 to 2000 state corrections spending grew six times faster than state spending on higher education -- state spending on corrections grew 166 percent during that period versus a 24 percent increase for the states' overall budgets.Florida's performance here was better than the national average: Corrections spending in Florida grew at only 21/2 times the rate of higher education spending between 1985 and 2000. In 2000, the state of Florida spent $3.022 billion from its general fund on higher education, and $1.554 billion on corrections. That year, nearly as many African-American men were in the state prison system as were enrolled in Florida's colleges and universities (37,000 vs. 37,437).Concerns like these are starting to slow the growth of the American gulag, at least at the state level. A number of states are experimenting with alternatives to incarceration. In 1989, Miami-Dade County started the first drug court in the nation; today, there are nearly 800 drug courts around the country. Rules vary from state to state, as do success rates, but typically they provide supervised treatment for low-level, nonviolent offenders who would otherwise have been sent to jail or prison.In 2000, voters in California approved a broad treatment-alternative program, modeled after another successful program in Arizona, which was also enacted by a ballot measure. California is now reportedly reducing the rate at which drug offenders are being incarcerated. A similar treatment-alternative proposal is on the ballot in Ohio. Another proposal in Florida was held up by the state Supreme Court until after the deadline for 2002; it may appear on the 2004 ballot.Treatment-alternative plans are beneficial to those who qualify, but the treatment needs of those inside the drug gulag go largely unmet. Only 14 percent of drug- and alcohol-involved offenders at the state level enter treatment after admission to prison, and 31 percent report participation in some other substance-abuse program. Only 12 percent of federal offenders receive treatment for substance abuse during their current sentence, while 26 percent participate in other substance-abuse programs while in prison.Treatment in prisons is important because most inmates eventually leave the gulag. Our failure to provide treatment and other rehabilitation programs contributes greatly to high recidivism rates for former drug prisoners: 66 percent of drug offenders released from state prison are re-arrested within three years of release -- 41 percent on another drug charge. Again, the gulag fuels its own growth.What can be done?Repealing mandatory minimum sentencing laws and providing treatment for inmates with alcohol and other drug dependence is vital to slowing the growth of the American drug gulag. But drug users shouldn't need to get arrested in order to get treatment.The more basic question is whether the criminal-justice system is the appropriate mechanism to deal with adult drug use, especially marijuana use. The drug war has raged for decades, yet kids today report that marijuana is easier to obtain than beer or cigarettes.Perhaps it's time that we consider whether regulating that market, rather than prohibiting it, would provide greater protection for families and society. Source: Orlando Sentinel (FL)Author: Doug McVay, Special to the SentinelPublished: September 29, 2002 Copyright: 2002 Orlando SentinelContact: insight orlandosentinel.comWebsite: Articles & Web Sites:CSDP of Justice Statistics DrugSense: Drug War Clock Millions Behind Bars in U.S. Data on the Drug War's Child Casualties
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Comment #3 posted by Toad on September 29, 2002 at 01:46:51 PT
The number of drug prisoners in the U.S.A is an absolute disgrace. A truely unholy imprisonment of American citizens for crimes against the state. Vote the anti's out.
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Comment #2 posted by DdC on September 28, 2002 at 22:23:29 PT
The Prison Industrial Complex 
I LOST MY FREEDOM Linx and Prison Industries
VCL- Lawyers and Judges against the drug war 
Drug Reform Coordination Network
Cops Against The Drug War
Drug Sense
Cannabis News
MAP Inc.Org.
November Coalition
Human Rights and the WoD
Drug War Prisoners the Prisoners of WoD
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Comment #1 posted by BGreen on September 28, 2002 at 17:08:40 PT
Definition of a *Gulag*
 gu·lag also Gu·lag (g›“läg) n. 1. A network of forced labor camps in the Soviet Union. 2. A forced labor camp or prison, especially for political dissidents. 3. A place or situation of great suffering and hardship, likened to the atmosphere in a prison system or a forced labor camp.
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