The Ridiculous Reason These "Offenders" Won’t Be Home For the Holidays

December 6th 2015

Thor Benson

While many of us are out purchasing gifts and preparing to spend time with our families on the holidays, many nonviolent drug offenders will be locked away in prison. While some Americans debate Starbucks’ red cup, citizens caught in the crossfire of the War on Drugs remain removed from society.

The Federal Bureau of Prisons says around half of federal prisoners are incarcerated for drug crimes; that’s around 100,000 people. The Bureau of Justice Statistics says around 16 percent of people incarcerated in state prisons are there for drug crimes. That’s over 200,000 more people. (More prisoners are locked up in county and local jails, but the statistics for how many are there with a drug crime as their most serious offense are not available.)

An analysis released this year by FiveThirtyEight found if the federal and state prisons released everyone who is incarcerated with a drug crime as their most serious offense, 14 percent of state and federal prisoners would be released. While America celebrates its holidays, hundreds of thousands of people remain in prison because of the War on Drugs.

Beyond these numbers, many prisoners are serving long sentences for “violent” crimes without actually having committed a violent crime, as we’ve reported before. Some states define burglarizing someone’s garage or threatening violence as violent crimes.

Unfortunately, too many of the drug crime inmates are minorities. Since much of the War on Drugs was based on racist ideology, and law enforcement often focuses on poor, minority communities, these communities have been hit the hardest. 

Policies like harsher punishments for crack users than cocaine users and statistics of who gets arrested for marijuana crimes show how the system targets minorities. While Black and white Americans use marijuana at roughly the same rate, a Black citizen is almost four times as likely to be arrested for possession, compared to a white person. 

Luckily things are starting to change, if a little slowly. The Justice Department just released 6,000 federal prisoners, who were largely there for drug crimes. Presidential candidates on the left and right are talking about how to downsize the War on Drugs. 

Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders has introduced a bill that would end the federal prohibition on marijuana, and Hillary Clinton has proposed rescheduling it so it can be researched more. Both have pointed out how the War on Drugs hurts minority communities.

Even Republican presidential candidate Chris Christie, who has said he would crack down on states legalizing marijuana as president, has said “we need to start treating [drug addicts] in this country, not jailing them.”

Though the tides are slowly changing, many nonviolent drug offenders will spend another holiday season in prison. Perhaps next year some of them will spend it with their families.