The drumbeat is starting on the left over what an emboldened, reenergized Barack Obama should focus on in his second term. (There is the inconvenience of an election first, but polling numbers and the job-creation data are inviting enough to make Democrats giddy and eager to drop any veil of centrist intentions.) On the African-American left, the momentum is building for a rollback of the War on Drugs. This is a consistently vague agenda; it shifts from legalizing marijuana, to freeing police resources for more urgent matters, to comprehensive sentencing reform, and all points in between. But at its worst, it is a dangerously misplaced priority, and a sad reminder of the leadership vacuum in the one community that is trapped in a depression.
To be sure, critics of the War on Drugs have some indisputable facts on their side: Prisons at the federal and state level are crowded with relatively inconsequential, low-level dealers who are hardened by their stint behind bars, and who are often rendered permanently voteless and jobless when they resurface. A disproportionate number of those men, and ever so occasionally women, are black, a factor that helps give prisons the ugly look of a barricaded ghetto. (See Michelle Alexander’s best-seller The New Jim Crow.) Add to that the disparities in how our laws punish dealing in cocaine as opposed to methamphetamine or marijuana — or even “crack,” the rock-like substance derived from cocaine powder — and we see that the current system is outlandishly complex as well as unfair. Finally, there is the poor “kill” rate for the kingpins who are the intended targets. The war never keeps pace with the almost instantaneous succession rate in the drug trade; the critics even contend that aggressive prosecution only pumps up the illicit-drug market, by running up the value of drugs as a threatened commodity.
Most of these flaws have a valid remedy that policymakers should consider. (The supply-and-demand theory is the flimsiest; it would apply only in a fantasy world in which all narcotics were legal and unrestricted.) For example, there ought to be wide reforms in the criminal-justice process. Federal judges should have the flexibility to depart from mandatory minimums in crack cases; the innovation of drug courts, introduced in some localities, ought to be explored in the federal system, along with a range of alternative-sentencing options for small-time players. There are appalling weaknesses in the bar of court-appointed lawyers for indigent defendants (especially at the state level), which result in too many felony guilty pleas by first-time offenders. All these shortcomings need to be addressed.
But the War’s sharpest critics would probably consider all of the above to be piecemeal and tepid. Their rhetoric, if not their specific proposals, suggests that they would be dissatisfied with any regime that stresses incarceration and punishment, and that they would distrust even a system that treats the bit players differently from the ringleaders. According to this view, the status quo is so steeped in disparity and so invidious in its purpose that it would take something quite close to disarmament to undo the damage.
Michelle Alexander’s recent work, for example, explicitly ties the origins of the War to the rise in conservative, law-and-order politics and to a backlash against the assertiveness of the civil-rights movement. Her charge ignores the objective facts that (1) the crack trade exponentially expanded in the Eighties, and (2) the users who were maimed by the drugs and their trade were overwhelmingly African-American. Her book offers a strangely sympathetic treatment of the viciously predatory men who ran that trade and built mini-fortunes from it. Instead of being Alexander’s lost generation, they were essentially murderers whose weapons of choice were vials and pipes, and who did their killing from a distance; it is horribly implausible to suggest that without a crackdown on drugs, they were headed for a life of good citizenship. (According to the New York Times, James Forman Jr. — son of the civil-rights leader — makes a version of this argument in an upcoming article in the New York University Law Review. He makes the equally valid point that drug offenders are less than a fourth of the current prison population.)