RSN Fundraising Banner
FB Share
Email This Page
add comment

Legend writes: "This past Thursday, President Barack Obama became the first sitting president to visit a federal prison; just a few days earlier, he commuted the sentences of 46 low-level drug offenders."

John Legend. (photo: Getty)
John Legend. (photo: Getty)

Mass Incarceration Is Destroying America

By John Legend, TIME

22 July 15


President Obama's decision to commute the sentences of 46 low-level drug offenders is a positive step

his past Thursday, President Barack Obama became the first sitting president to visit a federal prison; just a few days earlier, he commuted the sentences of 46 low-level drug offenders. Both are steps forward in transforming our wrong-headed criminal justice system, but they are just that: steps. Our state and local governments must follow the president’s lead and transform our destructive “War on Drugs” into the public-health campaign it always should have been.

America, as more and more people are starting to realize, is indecently over-incarcerated. We lock up far more people per capita than any nation even close to our size: roughly 2.4 million men, women, and children. The financial toll of mass incarceration is irresponsible; the human toll is unconscionable.

We haven’t always been this way: Just 40 years ago, our incarceration rates were much lower, and on par with our peer nations. Since then, however, our prison population has ballooned by about 700%. What happened four decades ago that led to such a steep climb? We launched the so-called War on Drugs.

The full scope of how badly we lost that “war”—and how ill-advised it was to launch it in the first place—began to dawn on me in 2012, when I served as executive producer for Eugene Jarecki’s documentary The House I Live In. At the time, the War on Drugs had cost $1 trillion and led to 45 million arrests. Since then, those numbers have only risen.

It’s become even clearer, as I’ve visited correctional facilities and listened to inmates’ stories, that we’ve done great harm in criminalizing drug abuse. In California I met a 17-year-old methamphetamine addict who’d fallen into drug abuse after experiencing repeated sexual and physical abuse by his uncle. While incarcerated, however, instead of getting the treatment he needed, he was abused, again, and subjected to solitary confinement. Sadly, this is not a story on the margin.

There is a better way. This past Thursday, while the president was in Oklahoma, I visited a different kind of correctional facility in Portugal. It was like stepping through a looking glass—but into a more just system.

In 2001, Portugal took the bold step of decriminalizing all drug use. The Portuguese decided, instead, to treat addiction as a medical issue, with medical professionals at the center of their response system. Their correctional conditions are the exact opposite of ours; they are humane and tranquil. The facility I visited had cows and lambs out front, as part of the farm the inmates help run. They rarely use solitary confinement.

Some might be surprised to learn that Portugal has not fallen apart after 14 years of this humane, public-health-oriented approach. Quite the opposite, in fact: Portugal has seen drug-use rates, as well as drug-induced deaths, markedly decline.

Here in America, by contrast, we pay lip-service to the idea that addiction is a disease; we certainly don’t treat it like one in our jails and prisons. That’s a terrible mistake. No one grows up wanting to be a drug addict any more than anyone grows up wanting to be a diabetic or an alcoholic. Sure, people’s choices play a role in falling prey to those sicknesses; but those choices are often constrained by the mentally and emotionally debilitating effects of poverty. And further fracturing sick people’s lives through harsh punishment is no way to help them get better.

Those of us who have seen these diseases up-close understand that what a sick person needs is treatment, not punishment. As a teenager growing up in Ohio, I watched my mother disappear into more than a decade of drugs and despair after my maternal grandmother—a person who filled our whole family with love—passed away. My mother’s addiction didn’t just tear her life apart; it tore me and the rest of our family apart, too. Drug addiction, for anyone who doubts it, is a serious problem, and our society is right to want to tackle it.

But we’ve been going about it wrong. My mother didn’t need punishment; she needed help. Criminalizing drug abuse only further shatters people and families that are already in pieces.

And what’s true of drug criminalization is, unfortunately, true of our criminal-justice system in general: It takes people whom we have failed since birth—subjecting them to substandard food, poor living conditions, failing schools, unsafe communities—and then tries to “correct” them through inhumane, over-punitive treatment. That strategy would be a joke if it weren’t so sad.

Fortunately, some change is beginning to take root. The president is showing important leadership, and some state and local governments—which are where the vast majority of criminal-justice policy is made—are undertaking reform. Last November, I phone-banked and released a PSA on behalf of California’s Proposition 47, a historic ballot initiative that reclassified felonies that should never have been felonies, to misdemeanors. Thanks to Prop 47’s passage, tens of thousands of California inmates are now eligible for release, and nearly a million Californians are eligible to be freed from the label “felon.”

Similar change is needed across the country. For four decades, we have embraced the lie that incarceration makes us safer—that it protects us from “dangerous” people. Mass incarceration, does not make us safer; it makes us more vulnerable. It destroys communities, wastes resources, separates families, ruins lives. It is the result of policies that criminalize poverty and make prisons and jails become warehouses for deeply damaged people with little or no access to mental health or substance abuse treatment. Instead, let’s invest those resources in our neighbors and family members so they don’t end up in the system to begin with, and if they do, so they can get back on their feet.

The 46 people whose sentences the president commuted last Monday are just a drop in an ocean of lives that have been torn apart by the War on Drugs and the era of mass incarceration. It’s time to stop warring and start healing. your social media marketing partner


A note of caution regarding our comment sections:

For months a stream of media reports have warned of coordinated propaganda efforts targeting political websites based in the U.S., particularly in the run-up to the 2016 presidential election.

We too were alarmed at the patterns we were, and still are, seeing. It is clear that the provocateurs are far more savvy, disciplined, and purposeful than anything we have ever experienced before.

It is also clear that we still have elements of the same activity in our article discussion forums at this time.

We have hosted and encouraged reader expression since the turn of the century. The comments of our readers are the most vibrant, best-used interactive feature at Reader Supported News. Accordingly, we are strongly resistant to interrupting those services.

It is, however, important to note that in all likelihood hardened operatives are attempting to shape the dialog our community seeks to engage in.

Adapt and overcome.

Marc Ash
Founder, Reader Supported News

+28 # elizabethblock 2015-07-22 17:06
Amen. {By the way, that means "So be it."
+2 # Krackonis 2015-07-22 19:09
Quoting elizabethblock:
Amen. {By the way, that means "So be it."

Absolutely right! Amen Ra! Amen Re? Oh lets forget all of the other Amen's and just say our Amen is better :P Ignore those pesky Egyptians :P
+33 # economagic 2015-07-22 17:16
Right, and right on. This is widely understood today, though there are huge swaths of America where the dominant "solution" for everything in the minds of many people is to lock more people up and throw away the key.

One such swath, unfortunately, is the insane non-system of prisons that are privately owned and operated for private profit, which creates huge vested interests in maintaining the status quo.

Perhaps we need to get health care pro0fessionals and the schools that train them organized to advocate for a different set of vested interests!
+11 # Krackonis 2015-07-22 19:12
We did.... Then those psychologists went on to collude with torturers. Dr Mengele would be proud of us and how far we have come.

I mean, we don't hang those who participate in torture any longer, we just give them medals.

You think the prison system is corrupt, check out the government agencies... Especially those with Agency in the name....
0 # mozartssister 2015-07-23 08:05
Yes. One core question in all this is whether people are born bad and unchangeable, or "good" and/or malleable. I would argue conservatives tend to take the side of "nature" while liberals tend to take the side of "nurture."

It's probably a bit of both, but how many people (not to mention families) could we have saved, rehabilitated, turned around, integrated into the community, if we had created a more humane system? Not all, sure, but ours has been a path of destruction, not construction—to the detriment of us all, as Legend has said so eloquently.
+28 # Vardoz 2015-07-22 18:22
This is the nature of the Oligarchy we live in. Look around and we see abuse taking place in every level of our population except for the 1%. Mass incarceration and when people have served their time they are stigmatized by having to claim they were in prison. This is a wonderful move by Obama, I have to give him that regardless of the awful TPP. But we still have growing poverty, lack of health care for tens of millions of people even with the ACA, vets not getting the aid they need, a trillion dollars in student defaults, seniors,
the middle class and working families struggling to survive from pay check to pay check and catastrophic environmental damage as corporations and big money are having a monetary feast at our expense. Corporate dictatorship don't like
Democracy, they don't care about people's lives.
profit at any cost to everything and if our FOR PROFIT PRISON SYSTEM makes a profit destroying people's lives that's OK. In fact they are happy to screw all of our lives for their financial gain and this is why we have got to get Sanders and other people like him in positions of power who will work for Main St and not Wall St. and who are dedicated to restoring a Democratic
society of, for and by the PEOPLE not the 1%.
Without consideration for the health, safety and welfare of the society as a whole, the 99% will get more and more abused and crushed. This Oligarchy wants and is destroy everything that is good for the majority and we have to stop it.
+7 # Krackonis 2015-07-22 19:15
If they do it right. You could have everyone move from Factory Prison schools to Factory Prisons for ever-continuing slavery.

Once they get rid of all the jobs, this whole country will be one big plantation again with the rich white folk working the black folk in their fields...

Sippin on Lemonade...

The one percent have this all worked out.:P
+14 # Merlin 2015-07-22 19:14
I certainly agree with all that John Legend states here. Especially relevant is the reference to the Portugal experience. It alone destroys the argument for strict drug laws and enforcement. Frankly, We The People don’t need “more” or “better” reasons to end this “War on Drugs.” We don’t need more studies. This so called “war,” raged against bottles of pills and leaves is a total scam. It has no rationality to it.

This article does not address the real issue of why we have a “drug war” at all. Therefore in my view there has to be other reasons for its continuation. I believe the answer is in its use by the government in our foreign policy. Everything else flows from that government need. By everything, I mean restrictive and unjust laws, the resulting criminality and the unjust criminal system, the emphasis on racial discrimination and the poor, the incredible amount of money devoted to this whole domestic “problem,” the huge increase in incarceration rates, over crowded prisons and jails, the privatizing of the penal system…everythi ng. These are all just symptoms, (although serious problems,) stemming from our foreign policy needs.

As I have noted in previous posts, you do not solve a problem by attacking the symptoms that the problem exhibits. The only solution is to find and eliminate the cause. Our foreign policy agenda needs to be changed, before any real change in symptoms will occur.

Continued below
+14 # Merlin 2015-07-22 19:15

Check out Wikipedia on the US use of the “war on drugs” in foreign policy for starters.

As wonderful as the commuting of these 46 folks is, John Legend understands the reality:

John Legend:
“The 46 people whose sentences the president commuted last Monday are just a drop in an ocean of lives that have been torn apart by the War on Drugs…”

Unless our President rejects the agenda of world domination, and ends the need for the war on drugs in foreign policy, this commutation, as wonderful as it is for those involved, is more like preempting the issue, in order to calm the people, than any effort to make real change.
0 # NAVYVET 2015-07-23 06:53
I doubt that incarceration to attack people of color is merely a "symptom." You are correct as far as you go, but there are multiple reasons for American sadism--includi ng racism and Big Money. Read Michelle Alexander's THE NEW JIM CROW, and you will be shocked, then educated.
+15 # jazzman633 2015-07-22 19:55
Generation after generation of politicians lacks the courage to change a policy they have already brainwashed the public to accept. I have hated and opposed the drug war for 45 years, with activism, letters to the editor, and the like. Merlin is right -- change takes place WAY too slowly. In 1947, the LaGuardia Commission found "marihuana" to be no threat to society. In 1989 a DEA Administrative Law Judge agreed that cannabis had medical value. FINALLY, three decades later, two states have legalized it and many more have allowed medical use. That's how this vile persecution (Willliam F. Buckley called it "inquisitorial" ) will end: with the people, in the States, simply nullifying the drug war, as their gutless, hypocritical "leaders" look on.
+8 # Jim Rocket 2015-07-22 20:06
There was an article on this site a while back that said that only 3 or 4 percent of the drug profits stay in the country where the drugs are produced. The majority of the money ends up in the big banks or tax havens. All of a sudden it's easy to see why the War on Drugs has gone on for so long and is in no hurry to end.
+6 # davehaze 2015-07-22 22:22
Obama deserves no praise. The last time he spoke at the Organization of American states - maybe two years ago - he followed one president after another, including the President of Columbia, who uniformaly stated that the War on Drugs was a failure and drugs had to be decriminalized. Obama said no way!
Wasn't going to happen. So it wasnt. And didnt.

Whenever he does something for the common good, say, normalization of affairs with Cuba, or the nuclear deal with Iran, it fails to outway the massive damage he continues to inflict on the nation and world.
+8 # geraldom 2015-07-23 00:50
John Legend states that mass incarceration is destroying America, but not for the white elite privileged class, the very rich and the very powerful. It is my contention that this is exactly what the so-called one-percenters actually want. It removes a huge number of people from the voting roles who can no longer vote who would support liberal progressive views preventing them from choosing leaders who would support those very same views.
+3 # old codger 2015-07-23 02:57
Obama is a political opportunist , like Blair . Basically, he's a neo con like the rest of them but knows how to kiss arse real good to appease Liberal sentiments !

The prisons ( many privatized) are there to lock up the poor , mostly black and non whites. If the cops don't shoot black people they lock them up !
+2 # NAVYVET 2015-07-23 06:44
Thank you, Geraldom. You've pinpointed the cause--NOW LET'S DO SOMETHING ABOUT IT! Organize, take action! Do as my church does, hold public street vigils every week, bearing signs with the names of those killed or jailed, demanding justice. Mass protest is beginning to get results. NEVER GIVE UP. As Bob Marley wrote decades ago: "Get up! Stand up! Stand up for your rights!"

Have you heard John Legend sing? Go to YouTube. You can hear Mr. Legend's music and at the same time Bob Marley's. Legend is a wonderful soul, gospel and protest singer, a committed Christian (a REAL one like Martin Luther King and Jimmy Carter, not a phony), and another famed African American like Kareem Abdul Jabbar, highly intelligent and articulate, who is becoming an important public philosopher.

Do I need to keep saying that I'm an old white woman who was raised in the South and spent almost 12 years in the military before I understood US imperialism and resigned? Or do readers know by now?
0 # rradiof 2015-07-26 03:38
Commutations are not pardons. Barry Soetoro is at the bottom of Presidential executive action. Only William Henry Harrison--dead after 30 days of his presidency, and James Garfield, mortally wounded within three months of his first term, commuted/pardon ed less than our president. Over and out.
0 # Good4Glenn 2015-07-26 22:01
I suspect that corporate America in the desire for Private Property for Profit has made the imprisonment of people a profit making business. Shame on U.S.

THE NEW STREAMLINED RSN LOGIN PROCESS: Register once, then login and you are ready to comment. All you need is a Username and a Password of your choosing and you are free to comment whenever you like! Welcome to the Reader Supported News community.