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#LehighMLK: Lloyd Steffen on the war on drugs

Lloyd Steffen, professor of religion and university chaplain, is co-chair of the Lehigh MLK committee.

This is the first in a series of essays on social justice, civil rights and the criminal justice system written by faculty engaged in the MLK planning process. This year's celebration will include a book discussion group, lectures and a discussion with author and activist Angela Davis and Grammy-nominated hip-hop artist Lupe Fiasco at 7 p.m. Tuesday, Jan. 21 in Baker Hall.
 

 
Between 1980 and 1990, drug arrests and imprisonment of blacks for drug offenses in Pennsylvania rose 1,613 percent, resulting in a 58 percent non-white prison population. The impetus for this astounding change in the criminal justice system was the “war on drugs,” a federally sponsored effort pushed initially by the Reagan administration to crack down on drug use in the United States.
 
Although black Americans are less likely to have used drugs than white Americans, the war on drugs “racialized” drug use, with the media contributing to drug-user stereotyping. As the war on drugs targeted black and minority neighborhoods, legislators changed drug laws to force judges to impose mandatory minimum sentences. This exacerbated the discriminatory effect of the “crack-down” on drugs since minorities in urban areas were “easy” to arrest compared with whites whose drug dealing took place in harder-to-detect suburban settings.

Today, America has the highest incarceration rate in the world, and the war on drugs is the central cause for creating the system of mass incarceration that has given the United States the dubious honor of being the society most likely to put a citizen in prison. The persistence of racial disparities in arrests, convictions and imprisonment are today hallmarks of a system of discrimination that, in 2006, put one in every 14 black males behind bars, a rate 13 times that of white males. The 1960s civil rights movement never made its way into the American criminal justice system, but prisons may be precisely where such a movement is needed today.

A criminal justice system that would claim to be just must challenge the assumptions on which that system rests. Harsh sentences do not deter crime but destroy families and increase poverty when breadwinners are taken away. Incarceration and the building of more prisons are a contemporary societal problem, not the solution to a problem. Prisons as warehouses benefit no one, and the purpose of incarceration, and even punishment itself, should be rethought. Prison may be an option in some cases for some offenses, but public service and restitution to victims of crime are other options. Ideas about punishment focused on retribution prevent movement toward harm-reduction responses that focus on treatment and restoring societal harmony while rectifying injustices. Punishment ought to be a last resort when serious offenses occur; the guideline ought not to be a mandatory sentence that ignores individual factors but proportional rectification with alternatives to punishment made available--community service, restitution to victims and always observance of a “the least harsh” punishment rule when punishment is required. In a just criminal justice system, every effort should be made to restore the upset balance in the relationship of offender and offended by means of restitution. And non-discrimination must be a foundational commitment.

Given that the war on drugs has led to disproportionately high incarceration rates and inequalities in sentencing for poor people and blacks compared to middle-class whites, it is clear that America’s criminal justice policies have produced a system marked by racial and class disparities. No reasonable person of good will would want to support a criminal justice system that created even more societal problems while failing to protect society and deliver justice, yet this harsh critique is a credible evaluation of the system we have today. All citizens who believe in equality before the law and who are concerned for social justice should become educated about America’s prison system, the dynamics of mass incarceration and the continuing racial disparities in sentencing—these are civil rights issues that challenge our deepest democratic values and human rights issues that reflect our standards of decency.

- Lloyd Steffen, professor of religion studies and university chaplain

Posted on Tuesday, January 14, 2014

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