The NewStandard ceased publishing on April 27, 2007.

Prison Issues, Drug War Hardly Factor Into Presidential Race

by Kari Lydersen

As the US prison population continues to grow -- largely the result of legacy policies such as the so-called war on drugs -- we take a hard look at the candidates’ stances on incarceration and criminal justice.

Oct. 29, 2004 – With over two million people behind bars, the US has a higher percentage of its citizens and residents locked up than does any other country. And as those incarceration rates continue to disproportionately hit communities of color and low-income communities while enriching corporations contracted to build and run prisons, activists say massive reform is needed to correct a broken criminal justice system. Still, neither major party candidate has made these issues -- which are considered of vital importance to the people and communities affected by them -- into a campaign priority.

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"In terms of prospects for real reform, I can’t say either candidate offers real opportunity," said Ryan King, a research associate at The Sentencing Project, a non-profit organization that promotes alternative sentencing and a more humane approach to incarceration. "Kerry is opposed to the death penalty and has voiced some concern about mandatory [minimum sentences], but that doesn’t mean he’ll spearhead reform." In fact, other than Kerry’s opposition to capital punishment, which Bush aggressively supports, King says, "I don’t see much difference in the candidates."

The country’s current criminal justice policies were mostly determined before President Bush took office, but Bush came to the White House with a reputation for being tough on crime, advocating more prisons and aggressively favoring the death penalty.

This year Bush surprised many prisoners’ rights advocates when he addressed the reintegration of prisoners into society after their release during his State of the Union address.

During Bush’s six years as governor of Texas, the prison population in that state continued to expand. He extended sentences for nonviolent offenders, vetoed a bill that would have allowed counties to set up public defender systems and oversaw the incarceration of juveniles in adult facilities.

Bush also presided over the execution of 152 Texas inmates -- a national record. And despite the recent, nationwide spate of Death Row exonerations brought about largely by advances in forensic science, Bush has said he is certain not a single one of the men and women whose death warrants he signed was innocent.

Additionally, Bush drew anger by choosing to execute minors, which is elsewhere permitted only by authoritarian governments in Iran, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Yemen. Ninety-two percent of the juveniles on Death Row in 1998 were minorities, according to an Amnesty International report released at the time.

In contrast, John Kerry has consistently opposed capital punishment -- a rare stance for a presidential candidate from either major party. Independent candidate Ralph Nader and Green Party Candidate David Cobb both adamantly oppose the death penalty as well.

As President, Bush saw the US prison population rise from 1.96 million in mid-2001 by over 117,000 to nearly 2.1 million in mid-2003, according to the most recent available statistics from the Department of Justice.

The Justice Department reported in May of this year that blacks, who make up 39.2 percent of the overall prison population, and Hispanics, who factor in at 15.4 percent, continue to disproportionately fill US jails. According to the report, a total of 68 percent of prison inmates were members of racial or ethnic minority groups.

The crackdown on immigrants since September 11, 2001 by Bush’s administration has led to huge increases in the number of detainees in immigration facilities as well. Amnesty International reported that detainees, mostly Muslim men arrested for immigration violations, have been subjected to "a pattern of physical and verbal abuse" and denial of basic human rights.

Prisoners’ rights groups and community activists in areas hard hit by high incarceration rates point to the so-called "war on drugs" as one major contributor. With over half of the prison population locked up for drug offenses, reform advocates call for a new approach to combating substance abuse and addiction.

For his part, Kerry has spoken out against the failed drug war and called for less punitive approaches to dealing with nonviolent violators of drug laws. In January 2004, during a speech in New Hampshire, Kerry said: "We have never had a legitimate drug war in the United States. And the reason is that we’ve never focused properly on treatment and education. We’ve been mostly focused on the punitive side and interdiction… The second thing is, we are imprisoning a bunch of people in the United States of America with automatic sentences and putting nonviolent people away and filling up our jails in the most absurd, ridiculous, overly expensive way."

Kerry’s voting record on drug-related issues has been mixed. In 1996 he voted against allocating an additional $53 million to international anti-drug efforts, which drug war critics say are ineffective and divert funds from treatment programs at home.

Several times Kerry voted against extending application of the death penalty to drug-related crimes.

In 1999 he also voted against amendments that would impose stiffer penalties for manufacturing or trafficking methamphetamines and for powder cocaine possession. But he voted for the Omnibus Drug Bill in 1986, which created the highly controversial disparity in sentencing for crack cocaine versus powder cocaine possession. This disparity has been widely proven to result in much stiffer sentences for people of color, who are more likely than white people to use cheaper, pre-manufactured "crack" as opposed to the more expensive powder cocaine, which more affluent customers often convert into a substance that has the same effects as crack.

Bush has taken heat from progressives for his faith-based approach to dealing with drug addiction. In a 2001 interview with Time magazine, Bush said that fighting the drug war would require a focus on educating parents and children as well as helping people fight addiction. "One of my visions for the faith-based initiative is to encourage faith based programs to become more actively involved in helping people kick the drug habit," he said.

Both Nader and Cobb have been outspoken opponents of the drug war, calling for the decriminalization of marijuana and alternative sentencing for nonviolent drug offenders.

The ballooning prison population, which Bush inherited from his Democratic predecessor, has been a boon to private prison companies. Reform activists say that the growing prison-industrial complex, in which private industries make out with millions in public funds for prison construction and inmate housing as well as profit from cheap prison labor -- is another major force behind policies that lead to high lock-up rates.

In September, Corrections Corporation of America, a Republican donor, told its investors that it expects growing profits as a result of Bush’s expansion of federal law enforcement along with an increase in the most likely prison-age population and overpopulation in government-run facilities. "Successfully exploiting these opportunities should result in strong earnings and cash flow growth," the Associated Press quoted the company telling its investors.

Another large prison industry player, Wackenhut Corporation, gives freely to both Republican and Democratic candidates, but for the last two presidential elections has donated to George W. Bush, but not to either of his challengers.

As can be expected from candidates critical of the relationship between government and corporations, Cobb and Nader have called for an end to private, for profit prisons.

Additionally, on his campaign website, Cobb calls for an "overhaul of our so-called ‘criminal justice system,’ which he says "is permeated with racism and class bias."

Cobb supports "the development of a humane criminal sanction system that is genuinely about the rehabilitation of those who have engaged in anti-social activity" and "punishes based on behavior, not race, gender, gender identity or class, and which is based upon alternatives to incarceration except for those who pose a clear danger to society unless incarcerated."

While prisoners’ rights and progressive criminal justice reform groups are unanimous in their condemnation of Bush’s record as Texas governor, they tend to be more mixed about the recent records and proposals of both major candidates.

This year Bush surprised many prisoners’ rights advocates when he addressed the reintegration of prisoners into society after their release during his State of the Union address.

In the speech, the president called for a four-year, $300 million initiative that would aim "to reduce recidivism and the societal costs of re-incarceration by helping inmates find work when they return to their communities." The initiative would involve the Department of Justice, the Department of Labor and the Department of Housing and Urban Development to provide mentoring and housing as well as job training and placement to ex-offenders. As is typical in an election year, the initiative is still mainly on paper, its effects yet to be seen.

Bush’s administration also saw the passage of the Prison Rape Elimination Act, which became the first anti-rape law governing federal facilities when he signed it in September 2003. The law mandates, among other provisions, that the government conduct annual surveys on the effects of prison rape, hold annual hearings on the issue and train prison authorities in strategies for combating rape.

Human rights and prisoners’ rights advocates called the Act a step in the right direction, but it was also widely described as "mild," since it focuses mainly on information-gathering as opposed to enforceable changes, and since the US attorney general is free to accept or reject the recommendations of the newly formed National Prison Rape Reduction Commission.

"In Texas [Bush] certainly oversaw a troubled prison system," said Kara Gostch, public policy coordinator of the ACLU’s National Prison Project, who identified abuse and rape as significant problems in Texas facilities. "But with the Prison Rape Elimination Act, it’s the first time I remember a law dealing with prisoners’ rights. It’s a positive sign."

Both candidates have similar positions on the future of the Higher Education Act, a measure that in part prohibits young people who receive a drug-related conviction from obtaining government subsidies for higher education, including work-study jobs and student loans.

Statistics compiled by the Coalition for Higher Education Act Reform (CHEAR), show that since the Act took effect in 2000, the legislation has barred some 150,000 students from receiving financial aid. Both Kerry and Bush have indicated the Act should not apply retroactively to crimes committed before the student enters college, but neither supports a full repeal of the statute.

"This [retroactivity reform] would be a step in the right direction, but it will still affect thousands of students," said Christopher Mulligan, outreach director for CHEAR, which is a coalition endorsed by numerous civil rights groups, academics and youth group which aims to repeal the provision. "It’s a fundamentally flawed law, so debating what to do to make it better is wrong-headed."

Unlike past presidential elections, everyday crime has not been a paramount issue this year; fears over safety and security have instead been focused on terrorism. But both candidates are classified as "tough-on-crime," a stance that has historically cut across Republican and Democratic lines.

"We have to remember that even Clinton had a really harsh record on criminal justice issues," said King, the Sentencing Project researcher. "Kerry frequently brings up that he was a prosecutor -- he’s also going to be tough on crime."

In the presidential race, as in millions of people’s every day life, the prison industrial complex and those caught up in it constitute a massive but largely unheard presence. "The truth of the matter is that there are no well-funded large interest groups" working to reform the system toward more humane treatment of the incarcerated, said Mulligan. "Often people concerned with prison reform don’t have the right to vote," he pointed out. "Prisoners aren’t generally considered politically powerful."

Editors' Note: This article is the ninth in a series of pieces taking a serious look at the actual issues facing American voters (and non-voters) this election season -- not in partisan commentary format, but as hard news exposing a plurality of views. As the campaigns of both major parties focus more on gossip and rhetoric than on substance, The NewStandard will investigate what we can expect from each candidate, including how their positions differ (or do not), as well as alternatives overlooked or downplayed by politicians and the mainstream media.

For the previous articles in this series see:
"Bush, Kerry Differ Slightly on Foreign Policy, Scholars Say"
"‘Small Businesses’ Debate Intentionally Skews Reality, Critics Say"
"Bush and Kerry Jockey to ‘Out-Sharon’ Each Other"
"Immigrants Kept in the Shadows by Presidential Frontrunners"
"Civil Liberties Considered Peripheral by Major Candidates"
"Labor Organizers Call Bush’s Threat to Workers ‘Unprecedented’"
"Spat Over N. Korea Nukes Almost Sparks Real Policy Debate"
"At Least On Health Coverage, Candidates Diverge Greatly"

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The NewStandard ceased publishing on April 27, 2007.


Kari Lydersen is a contributing journalist.

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