Many injustices committed by the State make more sense when you consider the possibility that the real goal of government—as championed or at least sanctioned by the majority of the populace and as carried out by State officials—is to wield power over others. Power usually for some (however vaguely stated) goal, but sometimes for no discernible purpose whatsoever. It is probably true that a given person's desire to wield power over others, the strength and severity of such power that that person will support, and that person's concern for the consequences of this power-wielding are strongly influenced by how different those "others" are perceived as being.
Most people (seem to) consider drug users, drug dealers, and others convicted of drug-related charges as violent miscreants who deserve their sentences and who make our cities safer by being locked up. Importantly, most people don't personally know anyone railroaded by the criminal justice [sic] system and its War on Drugs, and they seem to consider those people not victims of the State but rather some kind of boorish, uncivilized perpetual delinquents who are not part of our civil society, who don't deserve any benefit of the doubt, who don't deserve any mercy or even lighter sentences, who must have done something or other that was worthy of a prison sentence because they're those types of people.
While many seem to be coming around on the decriminalization of marijuana, most Americans still strongly support the criminalization of harder drugs such as cocaine, crystal meth, and heroin. When you hear about the crimes the State commits against nonviolent people in its enforcement of said criminalization, you start to realize that most Americans are awful, despicable people. And they have put in power exactly the type of government they want. Oh, I grant you, no one ever seems to be satisfied with the particular policies and functional details of any state or federal government at any time, but the broad strokes reflect the desires of the American populace perfectly.
So you’re a judge, and Sharanda P. Jones comes before you for sentencing for conspiracy to distribute crack cocaine.
She’s a 32-year-old mom with a 9-year-old daughter and no prior arrests, but she has been caught up in a drug sweep that has led to 105 arrests in her Texas town. Everyone arrested is black.
There are no drugs found on Jones, but her supposed co-conspirators testify against her in exchange for reduced sentences. The whole case is dubious, but she has been convicted. What’s your sentence?
You have little choice. Given the presumptions of the case, she gets a mandatory minimum sentence of life without the possibility of parole. Jump to today and already Jones has spent 14 years in prison and is expected to die behind bars — for a first offense.
Ricky Minor, a meth addict and father of three, was found with 1.2 grams of meth in his home, along with over-the-counter decongestants that can be used to manufacture meth. He was initially charged under Florida law and says he faced a two-and-a-half-year sentence. Later indicted under federal law, he pleaded guilty because his public defender said that otherwise the prosecutors would also pursue his wife, leaving no one to raise their children. Minor had several prior nonviolent offenses, for which he had never served time, and these required Judge Clyde Roger Vinson to sentence him to life without parole. Judge Vinson said that the sentence “far exceeds whatever punishment would be appropriate.”
Danielle Metz became pregnant at 17 and later married an abusive man who was also a drug dealer. To placate him, she says, she sometimes helped him by fetching cocaine or collecting money from Western Union. After one clash in which he punched her in the face, she took the kids and left him. Two months later, she was indicted. She says that she was prosecuted primarily to induce her to testify against her husband, but that she wasn’t knowledgeable enough to have useful information to trade for a reduced sentence. She has now spent more than 20 years in prison.
Those examples come from a devastating new report, "A Living Death," by the American Civil Liberties Union. It identified more than 3,200 such nonviolent offenders sentenced to die behind bars.
Four out of five are black or Hispanic. Virtually all are poor. Many had dismal legal counsel. Some were convicted of crimes committed when they were juveniles or very young adults.
These people are victims of America’s disastrous experiment in mass incarceration. From the 1930s through the early 1970s, we incarcerated people at a steady rate. Since then, incarceration rates have roughly quintupled. America now imprisons people at more than five times the rates of most Western countries.
Large-scale atrocities like the War on Drugs make more sense when you consider that wielding power over others and controlling their lives to the greatest practical extent are the primary goals of politics and government as most Americans see them, and nice-sounding goals like keeping our children safe, ensuring everyone is treated equally under the law, and protecting our lives, liberty, and property are only secondary, post hoc justifications for the primary goal.