Drug incarceration in the age of Obama

by Nasser Mussa

Although the U.S. has the highest incarceration rates in the world, President Barack Obama has remained quite silent on the issue and appears to be far from making substantial reform any time soon. Obama took office in the middle of a financial crisis and two wars, which consumed his first term. With many Americans focusing on the recession and unemployment, criminal justice issues are serious problems devoid of public attention. Given that Colorado and Washington have approved recreational use of marijuana, Obama should use this as a stepping stone and address America’s mass incarceration of minor drug offenders, which costs millions of taxpayer dollars. Study after study shows that the U.S. criminal justice system has been in crisis since the declaration of the “War on Drugs” in the 1970s and 80s, which led to a massive incarceration rate nationally. Roughly, one in every 100 Americans is behind bars today or on probation, a number largely consisting of drug offenders serving minimum sentences of 10 years . Nearly half of the 1.64 million people who are arrested for drug violations every year were likely jailed for small amounts of marijuana. According to research conducted by Steven Duke of Yale University, “the percentage of State prisoners doing time for drug offenses has gone up from 6 percent in 1980 to 20 percent in 2003. The percentage of federal prisoners who are incarcerated for drug offenses has increased during the same period from 25 percent to 55 percent”. With a growing prison population, the economic cost is becoming an unavoidable, harsh reality, which many states cannot afford. A 2008 study released by the Pew Research Center shows constantly rising state spending on corrections and “Total state spending on corrections — including bonds and federal contributions — topped $49 billion last year, up from $12 billion in 1987. By 2011, continued prison growth is expected to cost states an additional $25 billion.” Despite soaring economic costs and massive minor crime incarceration, the Obama administration appears to be far from making necessary reforms to our criminal justice system and inconsistent state drug laws. Nasser Mussa welcomes comments at [email protected]