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Teeming prisons create a permanent underclass

It is no secret that our nation’s prison population has skyrocketed during the last forty years, thanks largely to the failed War on Drugs. The race to incarcerate has led to a quintupling of our prison population since 1980; more than two million people are behind bars today. What’s less well known, however, is that millions more are locked in invisible cages for which there is no key. These cages are not made of steel but of laws, policies, and practices that permanently relegate everyone labeled “felon” to an inferior second-class status.

People with a felony conviction – even for a petty drug offense, such as being in possession of a small amount of drugs for personal use – can be denied the right to vote, automatically excluded from juries, and legally discriminated against in employment, housing, and access to education and public benefits.

The collateral consequences of a felony are severe and life-long. And they are meted out wildly inequitably. Studies consistently show that people of all colors use and sell illegal drugs at remarkably similar rates, yet our nation’s prisons and jails are overflowing with black and brown people convicted of low-level drug offenses.

Young black men, in particular, are targeted by police and ensnared by the drug war at early ages, sometimes before they are old enough to vote. Once branded a felon, they are ushered into a parallel social universe in which basic civil and human rights supposedly won in the Civil Rights Movement no longer apply to them. This is not a minor phenomenon. If you take prisoners into account, a large majority of African American men in some urban areas, like Chicago, have been labeled felons for life.

In California every year, more than 30,000 people are convicted of a felony simply for possession a drug for personal use – and more than half of them are African American or Latino. The result is not only that thousands of African Americans and Latinos go to jail and prison every year in numbers far out of proportion with their representation in the general population – simply for possessing a small amount of drugs for personal use. They are also labeled “felons” for life.

A felony conviction is a form of societal branding which some commentators have rightly described as “internal exile.” For most people convicted of a felony, the punishment lasts far longer than any time served behind bars. Some people convicted of a felony serve no time in prison or jail and get “just” felony probation, but they find their punishment never ends. Their ability to find work, housing, and qualify for basic benefits is forever altered. Many find it difficult to survive once they have been branded a felon, contributing to the staggeringly high recidivism rate here in California and nationwide.

Branding people felons for minor crimes is wasteful in terms of both dollars and lives. That’s why Senator Mark Leno’s proposal to reclassify simple drug possession under California state law is so important. Senate Bill 1506 would revise the penalty for possession of a small amount of drugs for personal use from a felony to a misdemeanor.

The misdemeanor penalty is hardly a slap on the wrist. It’s a serious punishment: up to one year behind bars plus fines and probation. That is still too harsh for this petty offense, but it’s an important reclassification that we should all support. It will maintain the criminalization of drug use, but it will not relegate a person to permanent second-class status. For tens of thousands of Californians – particularly black and brown people who have suffered the most in the War on Drugs – this is a distinction that makes all the difference.

Efforts to reduce the number of people behind bars are gaining traction thanks largely to spiraling state budget deficits. SB 1506 wins on that count, too. It will save $200 million a year. But we must also demand – as SB 1506 does – a rethinking of the draconian and oppressive policies of the War on Drugs which has criminalized millions of black and brown Americans. No one – no matter what their race or ethnicity – should be relegated to a permanent second-class status simply because they were once caught with drugs.

Ed’s Note: Alice Huffman is President of the California State Conference of the NAACP. Michelle Alexander is the author of The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.


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