There’s nothing theoretical about the civil liberties crisis of our time.
While it may take a bit of imagination to figure out what we should be worried about when it comes to government surveillance, you have to deny reality to ignore the devastation of the so-called War on Drugs, which has left America with the largest prison population in the world by far.
“Today there are more African-Americans under correctional control — in prison or jail, on probation or parole — than were enslaved in 1850, a decade before the Civil War began,” Michelle Alexander, the author of The New Jim Crow, said. “There are millions of African-Americans now cycling in and out of prisons and jails or under correctional control. In major American cities today, more than half of working-age African-American men are either under correctional control or branded felons and are thus subject to legalized discrimination for the rest of their lives.”
Federal funding creates perverse incentives for local authorities to prioritize drug arrests. Harsh sentencing requirements and the social stigma of a drug conviction combine to create what Alexander calls a “caste system.”
But in the last few years some progress has been made in reshaping a debate that has been calcified since the 1970s. A bipartisan consensus lasting three decades seems to be finally cracking, thanks to collaboration between a willing president and Republicans who pride themselves on an independent civil libertarian streak.
Even journalist David Dayen — who often chronicles governmental reform with a cynical eye — is impressed by the latest developments coming out of Washington:
If you want to restore faith in policymaking again, check out the continued demise of the war on drugs http://t.co/BKuKRF6W3D
— David Dayen (@ddayen) January 31, 2014
The Guardian article Dayen links to begins like this:
America’s war on drugs took a major step toward ceasefire on Thursday, as a bipartisan group of senators voted to move forward with the first substantial cut in mandatory minimum sentences, and as the Justice Department made it known that President Obama is looking to commute the sentences of more existing prisoners.
Legislation proposing dramatic reductions in federal prison terms for non-violent drug offenders, and an end to the hundred-fold disparity between crack and powder cocaine sentencing advanced through the Senate judiciary committee by a vote of 13 to five.
The support of a number of right-wing Republicans, including Rand Paul, Mike Lee and Ted Cruz – who joined as a last-minute co-sponsor – gives significant momentum to a full Senate vote on the bill, which is mirrored by a House proposal from Republican Raul Labrador and Democrat Bobby Scott.