Since the onset of the war on drugs, the U.S. has held one of the world’s highest rate of incarceration, with over 41.6% of inmates under a federal drug offense sentence (Federal Bureau of Prisons, 2018). The war on drugs usually refers to the severe measures enacted by the criminal justice system regarding illegal drug possession and consumption. In 1971, president Nixon announced, America’s public enemy number one in the United States is drug abuse. In order to fight and defeat this enemy, it is necessary to wage a new, all-out offensive (Nixon). According to Michelle Alexander, professor of social justice and leading writer in racial justice, the system has caused black men in poor communities to be charged with possession crimes much higher rates than upper-class whites (2010). With almost two times as many blacks in prison for drug crimes than whites (US Department of Justice, 2009), the question becomes: Why has the US war on drugs affected poor minority families more than others?
Many researchers have proposed the cause of the overrepresentation of minorities in prison. On the one hand, epidemiologists Sandro Galea and David Vlahov argue that people with lower incomes and other predictors of a lower socioeconomic status are more likely to participate in high-risk activities such as illegal drugs (2002). Simply put, more drug use in poor communities leads to more criminals. However, it cannot be proven that minorities are more involved with drugs. On the other hand, Marc Mauer contends that low-income communities often have limited access to legal services, causing unbalanced decisions in the justice courts (2010).
Contrary to Galea and Vlahov, the essence of Mauer’s argument is that communities generally have the same drug rate, but some do not have the resources to hire a competent defense. Others, such as Brad Smith and Malcolm Holmes, assert that drug rate is constant but maintain that police officers sometimes view large poor minority communities as a threat in the community, resulting in strict control (2014). Smith and Holmes are suggesting that the incarceration problem is the consequence of officers’ racial biases. Although all of these may be reasons why minorities of lower economic status are overrepresented in the prison population on drug charges, many are not acknowledging the daily economic needs of the incarcerated families.
Regardless of the offense, prisoners leave the justice system with little to no economic mobility. After incarceration, former offenders are restricted from many licenses, permits, and government jobs. (Iguchi, 2002). This indicates that former offenders will be disadvantaged in terms of finding employment. However, a study by Jeffrey Kling of the National Bureau of Economic Research shows that income before and after incarceration is very similar. Kling suggests that the effect of incarceration on employment is similar because job opportunities were low even before incarceration in many of the minority communities he studied (1999). Although Nevertheless, incarceration does not improve the lives of the minority community.
A strong possibility for former drug offenders is the reintroduction to illicit drug activity. Drug gangs give an opportunity for those suffering from financial problems to earn a living (Felbab-Brown, 2002). With lower chances of a legitimate profession, former drug offenders are forced financially to participate in illegal activities. In an study by Trevor Bennett and Katy Holloway of South Wales University, an interviewed former inmate said, Once you like start withdrawing you’re in pain and the only way to stop that pain is to do more heroin and to get the money I was like forced to go out and shoplift (2009, p. 528). Drug offenders often bring drug addiction with them after release. The war on drugs is a self-fulfilling cycle that depends on the runs on the economic hardships of the condemned.
Despite the sustained effort to remove drug offenders from society, many communities are not any safer. In fact, studies suggest that the war on drugs has caused familial hardships, especially in poorer African American communities due to parents in prison. Mass incarceration has affected the families of offenders too. According to PEW Research Trusts, one in 9 African American children (11.4 percent), 1 in 28 Hispanic children (3.5 percent) and 1 in 57 white children (1.8 percent) have an incarcerated parent (Western and Pettit, 2010, p. 4). In 2008, 3.8% of African American children had a parent in prison for drug offenses, while in 1980, the statistic is only 0.3%. (Western and Pettit, 2010, p. 33). In addition to the incarceration cycle that plagues adults, a similar reaction can happen between generations (Simmons, 2009).
According to Sandra Browning et al., professor in criminology with a focus on underclass minorities, lack of parental care combined with financial struggles have caused many problems for some of these families, including the increased likelihood that the child will feel guilt, lowered self-esteem, and anger towards their parent (2001). Decreased self-esteem and increased anger due to lack of care can result in drop-outs, suspensions, and may even pave the way to the child’s own incarceration. Another problem is the lack of assistance or the often low quality of assistance. The spouses of the incarcerated are often looked down upon (Browning et al., 2001). Family ties were pulled apart when a parent was incarcerated. When a family member is incarcerated, the child may feel guilt and have a lower self-esteem. Family visits are few and far between. Most fathers in prison have never seen their child (Browning et al., 2001). Often because of a single parent, children are more likely to get in trouble, get labeled as troublemakers, and drop out of school. The collateral effects of incarceration cannot be ignored.
From 1960 to 2015, the cost of raising a child to 18 in poor communities has risen by 16% (Lino et al. 27). With the rising costs of raising a child, it is necessary for minority poor communities to make money. In order to support the children while parents are incarcerated, many young men are forced to sell drugs. According to award-winning criminologist Joseph and writer Pearson, boys living in poor minority communities who participate in the drug trade can earn much more than working in unskilled jobs such as fast food restaurants (2002). In addition, another distinguished criminology professor Todd Clear states, Young men who are involved at the margin in drug selling are also often support systems for younger siblings and even their own children and the mothers of those children (617). In making this comment, Clear urges us to consider the motivation of some African Americans partaking in the illegal drug trade. These studies suggest that poor minority groups are disproportionately incarcerated because many are forced into the drug business in order to survive.
With the surplus of incarceration and suffering families, it is imperative to consider the economic perspective. Most people would participate in illegal acts to support their family. As Alexander puts it, Nothing has contributed more to the systematic mass incarceration of people of color in the United States than the War on Drugs (2012, p. 59). The war on drugs has caused poor minority communities to be more likely to be sent to prison. The cycle continues when families are forced into illegal acts such as drug dealing to earn money. We should do this:
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