Editorial: The War Against Communities, Families, and Women

Prisons bursting at the seams, children torn apart from their mothers, women serving life sentences because they couldn’t or wouldn’t name someone else for their alleged drug offense. These are some of the disastrous consequences of the government’s so-called “war on drugs”. As the stories of so many women in this issue make clear, the “war on drugs” is not only a war against communities and families. It is also a war against the women of these communities. And the women and men who end up paying the price for the drug war are disproportionately people of color. In 1980, 33% of the people in Federal prisons were people of color. By 1993, the proportion had risen to 64% largely because of the implementation of mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses. Today in California, people of color make up 73% of the prison population.
In 1986 the US Congress decided to step up its “war on drugs” by drastically increasing the use of mandatory minimums. Poor Black and Latino communities were already ravaged by a crack epidemic promoted by the CIA. The mandatory minimum sentence for 5 ounces of crack cocaine, the form widely used in the Black community, is the same as the sentence for 500 ounces of powdered cocaine. The only way a judge can sentence below a mandatory minimum is if the defendant provides “substantial assistance” or cooperation in the prosecution of someone else. Supposedly these laws were aimed at drug “kingpins”. In reality they have impacted most heavily on small time offenders – those with no information to sell. Although someone in the US is arrested every 30 seconds for drug violations, more illegal drugs of higher quality are entering the US than when the “drug war” began.
All of this has a particular impact on women. Women who have little or nothing to do with their boyfriend’s drug deals are being named as conspirators when the boyfriend tries to get off. Women who are in abusive relationships, like Kemba Smith, and keep quiet about their boyfriends drug dealings because of their fears, are being given 25-year sentences. And since 80% of women prisers are mothers of young children, it’s their children who bear the brunt of the punishment, often losing all connection with their mothers and ending up with distant relatives or foster families.
Mandatory minimums are racist and corrupt and should be overturned. The many efforts challenging them and their impact deserve all our support. FAMM, Families Against Mandatory Minimums, has been working to repeal mandatory sentences since 1991 and has had substantial impact on public opinion, but there’s still a long way to go. On May 22-23 the Los Angeles Citizens’ Fact Finding Commission on US Drug policy held public hearings on the social impact of this policy. And on still another front, a federal civil rights lawsuit was recently filed against the CIA and Department of Justice by residents in Oakland and Los Angeles, suing the government for economic, physical and emotional injuries brought about by the crack epidemic. This suit places the responsibility for drugs where it ultimately belongs – with the ones who set policies in this country.
For more information write FAMM, 1612 K St. NW, Suite 1400, Washington DC 20006, 202-822-6700 and Famelies to Amend California’s Three Strikes at P. O. Box 21613, San Jose, CA 95151-1613, 415-977-2121.