Obama at the NAACP: Nibbling at the Margins

President Obama in a July 14 address to the NAACP, followed by a visit to a federal prison in Oklahoma, called for criminal justice reform: "We should pass a sentencing reform bill through Congress this year."

While the speech as been hailed as a major step forward, it is only nibbling at the margins.

The fundamental problem isn't the sentencing. The real problem is defining the sale and usage of drugs as criminal acts. That underlying assumption went unchallenged in Obama's call for criminal justice reform.

The language of Obama's NAACP speech is telling:

"We've also locked up more and more nonviolent drug offenders than ever before, for longer than ever before. And that is the real reason our prison population is so high. In far too many cases, the punishment simply does not fit the crime. If you're a low-level drug dealer . . . you owe some debt to society."

Obama argues for reduced sentences, but he still describes these individuals as "offenders." We can reduce our incarceration rates, and the number of families broken due to incarceration, but these individuals would still be convicted of a crime. With rap sheets showing drug arrests and convictions, they are still unlikely ever to get a legitimate job. We are cycling them back into the drug economy, which may be the only opportunity for employment.

Continuing to define drug trade and usage as criminal necessarily perpetuates an underclass of people (mostly male, mostly minority) who face a future of reduced opportunity. As Robert Putnam recently pointed out, children of the unemployed and incarcerated are also at a disadvantage, perpetuating inequality into the next generation.

The President's focus on "non-violent" offenders is also worth noting. When a substance for which there is demand is declared illegal, the inevitable result is violence, crime and corruption. Remember Prohibition of Alcohol (1920-1933). Criminal gangs fought over sales territories, killing innocent bystanders in addition to each other. Trade in alcohol was a business, and a business requires adjudication and enforcement of territories and contracts. With the courts closed to alcohol sellers, only criminals such as Al Capone and company could provide enforcement services--usually violent. The day prohibition ended, beer distributors took their disputes to court. (And we don't think of those who own local microbreweries as owing "a debt to society.")

So too with the drug trade. As the current mayhem in Chicago--so reminiscent of 1920's Chicago--illustrates, drug gangs will continue to kill each other over territory, and citizens at large are at risk.

Reducing sentences for drug users and low-level sellers will do exactly nothing to change the overall violence and criminality as gangs fight over turf, and we leave all decisions about purity and potency of drugs and sales to minors in the hands of gangs and cartels. And the trade will generate an endless supply of low-level "non-violent offenders" having their lives ruined by arrest and prosecution even if their sentences are reduced.

We need to turn the problem off at its source instead of tinkering with sentencing while leaving the drug economy to carry on as before.

Only legalization of drugs can change the dynamic. That which is illegal cannot be regulated or controlled. Take management of problematic substances out of the criminal justice system; at best it can only mop up damage after the fact. Use regulatory tools proactively to manage.

Drugs should be treated like alcohol (and cigarettes): regulate place and manner of sale, require purity and potency standards and labeling, prevent sales to minors, let courts decide business disputes, and treat those with usage problems as a public health matter.


Legalize . Regulate . Control