By Lisa Linbrugger, DWS guest contributor
When I heard the news of Attorney General Jeff Session’s promise to double down on the war on drugs, my heart sank. This is clearly a man who knows little of the effects of drug war incarceration on families and children. This is a man who during his time as Alabama’s attorney general, wanted to establish mandatory death sentences for second-time drug trafficking offenders, including marijuana. He’s now telling federal prosecutors to pursue low-level drug offenders and to impose the toughest penalties. This may seem reasonable for violent or gang/cartel related activities, however, without some discernment, the law becomes executed in a cruel and senseless manner.
I thought back to the 90s and felt relief that such draconian measures hadn’t become a reality, at least in my state. See, my own mother was caught up in the middle of a marijuana bust. With a conspiracy charge, she was sentenced to serve almost five years in federal prison; some might even say she was let off easy in comparison to other first time offenders. She is now labeled a “felon”. She is smart, kind, extremely capable and ambitious, much like many other felons, however she is prohibited from earning certain licenses, a real estate license for example, which she had tried for. In fact, when applying for any job, she, like other felons, has to check the box that states they have been convicted of a crime – which usually means being weeded out before even getting a fair chance. My mom had owned a restaurant, and is a hard worker, but she made some bad decisions as a single mom trying to get ahead. Yes, there are penalties for breaking the law, but she continues to pay the price for her mistake, as does the economy, as a loss in competent human capital.
What Session’s and others who support the drug war seem to ignore is that the non-violent, drug offenders they so eagerly seek to prosecute are hardly the only ones who pay and, I would add, hardly the ones law enforcement should be focused on. The punitive cost is shared unsparingly; society pays, the families pay, the children especially pay. I was lucky enough to have a safety net including grandparents who took it upon themselves to care for me, a privilege many caught in the same unfortunate predicament do not have. My story is hardly the worst of the casualties, but enough to get a taste of the senselessness firsthand. We don’t need to double down on the drug war increasing the mass incarceration epidemic, we need to find a more humane way of treating drug offenders, if only to decrease the innocent “collateral” punishment which then ripples out into our society perpetuating the very problems we seek to resolve. Instead of relegating offenders to the high-cost criminal system, it would make more sense to allocate that funding towards mental health services and economic opportunities, or better yet simply legalizing certain drugs such as marijuana, a medicinal plant, much like how Uruguay has recently done.
I have a memory of going with my grandmother to my mom’s court dates; the guards would bring her out in oversized jump suit and shackles; her diminutive figure looking weighed down from the cuffs and chains. As a teen, this was, of course, shocking, but I can’t imagine being a young child seeing one’s mother treated so harshly, like a real hardened criminal.
My memory is but one small, relatively innocuous, example of an injury to a child’s psychological well-being. There is also the physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual toll that must be accounted for. The stressors, however seemingly big or small, add up. The studies show that the stigma and cumulative fallout extend well into adulthood, bringing an increased risk for poor mental and physical health.
A 2015 study by Child Trends: “Parents Behind Bars What happens to Their Children?” reports that “the incarceration of a parent is an event included in many lists of adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), exposures that are associated with increased risk for trauma, or toxic stress, which can lead to various kinds of physiological dysfunction, disease, and early mortality. When a child’s parent is incarcerated, traumatic stress may occur through multiple pathways. First, it involves the loss of an attachment figure and may be particularly troubling to the child because the loss is not easily explained or understood. Second, whether or not the child witnesses the parent’s arrest, he or she may have ongoing, if sporadic, contact with law enforcement, judicial, corrections, and child welfare systems, all of which can contribute to further traumatization.”
It’s time we turn our attention to raising awareness and speaking out against the dehumanization that has become the norm in our criminal system, especially with the current administration. The war on drugs is simply not working. A sensible approach is possible, especially when considering that more than $51,000,000 is spent annually in the U.S. on the war on drugs (as reported by the Drug Policy Alliance). A comprehensive approach involving regulation, taxation, education and health are within our means.