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The current “war on drugs” is disproportionately putting people of color behind bars at unprecedented speeds

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United States Attorney General Jeff Sessions issued an op-ed and memo stating his instructions for prosecutors to “charge the most serious, readily provable offense” in drug cases, and rescinded the Obama-era policy of reducing penalties for low-level drug offenders.  The purpose of the Obama Administration’s decision to leave mandatory minimum sentencing to the most dangerous or high-level drug offenders was to incarcerate fewer people and use resources to rehabilitate offenders, instead of adding to the already staggering prison population.

The purpose of the Obama Administration’s decision to leave mandatory minimum sentencing to the most dangerous or high-level drug offenders was to incarcerate fewer people and use resources to rehabilitate offenders, instead of adding to the already staggering prison population. Now, Sessions wants to allocate resources for even the lowest-level offenders.

Sessions is setting up a dangerous incarceration dynamic. Click To Tweet

Jeff Sessions has been vocal about his “get tough on drugs” stance: he has touted the D.A.R.E. program – which has been found to be largely ineffective at curbing drug use among youth – as a stellar means of discouraging substance abuse, and has rolled back the Rohrabacher-Farr Amendment, which prevents the Justice Department from interfering with states and preventing them from creating their own medical marijuana regulations.  Jeff Sessions wants to criminalize medical marijuana, despite its use to treat ailments such as anxiety and epilepsy.  By attempting to revive the (failed) “war on drugs” policies, Jeff Sessions is setting up a justice system to further harm men and women of color and use precious resources to incarcerate low-level offenders instead of investing in rehabilitative and recovery programs.

What are mandatory minimum sentences?

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Mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses are predetermined terms that arise from the legislature, not the judicial system.  These sentencing requirements were laid out in the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986. Essentially, mandatory minimums are sentences handed down that have a mandatory minimum of time that must be served in prison, varying on the drug and quantity amount.  It leaves judges and prosecutors almost no wiggle room to adjust sentences that seem unfair given the circumstances.  Furthermore, the “war on drugs” and harsh mandatory minimums have caused the incarceration population to explode.  According to the Equal Justice Initiative, we have 2.2 million people in jail or prison today.  That means that while the U.S. only has 5 percent of the world’s population, we have 25 percent of incarcerated individuals.

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Who is affected the most by mandatory minimum sentencings and mass incarceration?

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People of color have historically been affected by mass incarceration and draconian drug sentencing.  According to the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, the female prison population has exploded by over 800 percent in the last 30 years.  African-American women are three times more likely than white women to be incarcerated, and Hispanic women are 69 percent more likely to be incarcerated than white women.  African-Americans are also 21 percent more likely to receive mandatory minimum sentences, as well.  In 2014, African-Americans made up 34% of the United States prison population.  The abysmal “war on drugs” has resulted in higher arrest rates of people of color – particularly black men – and led to higher racial profiling in black and brown communities.

African-American women are three times more likely than white women to be incarcerated. Click To Tweet

What is the effect of mandatory minimums and mass incarceration on American communities?

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When men and women are arrested and handed down lengthy sentences, it takes them away from their families, their communities, and the economy.  If someone in prison has children and a partner, the partner is severely financially burdened, and children may have problems focusing and performing in school.  The mental toll is as great as the financial toll for many families when a parent or partner is in prison.  Additionally, most states prevent convicted felons from voting, thus locking them out from participating in their community or city’s politics once they are released.  Convicted felons are also often barred from certain housing and employment.  By taking men and women out of their communities and offering them few, if any, educational opportunities in prison, the prison industrial system sets the stage for high recidivism rates.

Convicted felons are also often barred from certain housing and employment. Click To Tweet

Jeff Sessions tried to argue that after curtailing mandatory minimums, crime increased.  However, violent crime has decreased by more than 51 percent since 1991, and since the Obama-era practice of reigning in mandatory minimums for non-violent and low-level offenders, the crime rate dropped along with the prison population.

Don’t let Jeff Sessions fool you.  This is not about “getting tough on crime.”  Harsher mandatory minimums will undoubtedly bring more socioeconomic problems to communities of color.

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