Oklahoma prisoner release highlights the failed 'drug war'

Oklahoma prisoner release highlights the failed 'drug war'
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The conservative, law-and-order state of Oklahoma is releasing 462 people convicted of drug possession crimes from state prisons in what is among the largest single-day commutations of sentences in U.S. history. In 2016, Oklahoma voters approved a ballot question that reduced drug possession offenses from felonies, carrying potential prison sentences, to misdemeanors, with much shorter local jail sentences. This year, Gov. Kevin Stitt signed a law streamlining the process for people already sentenced to prison for these crimes to apply for commutation and reduction of their charge to misdemeanors.  

This mass commutation and reduction of penalties signals a growing recognition throughout the U.S. that the “War on Drugs” has been a monumental failure. With billions of dollars spent on prisons, prosecutions and police, this “war” has not dramatically reduced drug consumption, one of the intended results. Increased drug enforcement over the past 50 years has helped fuel a vast expansion of the nation’s prison system, giving the United States the world’s highest incarceration rate. Oklahoma imprisons a larger percentage of its residents than almost any other state. 

In our  2016 report, we detailed the devastation to individuals, families and communities caused by criminal enforcement of drug laws. The report highlighted extreme penalties that ruin lives. Data show that people of all races use drugs at similar rates, but enforcement against people of color is vastly higher than against white people, contributing to racial disparities in arrest and incarceration rates. In our recent report on policing in Tulsa, Okla., we found that police arrest black Tulsans for drug crimes at a rate almost two-and-a-half times greater than white Tulsans.

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Studies show that enforcement of drug prohibition increases violence in drug markets, and enforcement techniques such as “stop and frisk” policing may increase criminality among young people. Following decades of criticizing prosecution of the drug war, we have joined a growing chorus of advocates across the political spectrum calling for its end and for decriminalization of drug possession.

Though Oklahoma’s new laws are an important reform, they fall far short of this goal. Police across the state continue to stop, search and arrest people for possessing drugs. Misdemeanor drug charges still carry potential jail sentences that cost taxpayers while punishing individuals and their families. People accused of drug crimes still owe massive fees and fines that strip wealth from them and their communities. These new laws do begin to scale down the punitive nature of the system, but there is still a long way to go. 

States spend millions, even billions, of dollars on policing, prosecuting and punishing drug crimes. These expenditures are part of a trend toward addressing social problems — such as substance abuse, mental illness or poverty — through law enforcement and incarceration. 

Community-based economic development and bolstering employment and educational opportunities would make drug trafficking less appealing for people struggling to survive. In Tulsa, for example, enforcement of drug laws is concentrated in the poorest neighborhoods. Similarly, investment in voluntary drug treatment and mental health support systems would reduce the harm of substance abuse without adding the harm of arrest, jailing and fining.

The new Oklahoma laws address these problems at the back end — lowering sentences, providing some re-entry support for those released. More “back end” supports could help, such as forgiving fees and fines and providing extensive job training and placement. However, to truly reduce incarceration and the  drug war’s harm, investment in “front end” measures aimed at preventing people from entering the criminal legal system to begin with, ones that help people and communities cope with poverty and poor health without arrest and incarceration, will pay off much more effectively.

John Raphling is a senior U.S. researcher at Human Rights Watch and author of a new report on policing in Tulsa, Okla. Follow him on Twitter @jraphling.