Decriminalizing poverty and ending an ineffective war on drugs can solve America’s over-incarceration problems.

Photo curated by Robert Hickerson at Unsplash

The United States represents 5% of the world’s population and over 20% of its prison population, rivaling only Russia and South Africa for this dishonor. Tragically, we also represent one third of the total of the world’s life-sentence prison population and New York alone has over 51,000 people under correctional supervision. This over-incarceration reflects a stunning disregard for human potential, for rehabilitation, and for second chances.

Locally, the problem is acute — Riker’s Island, near the 12th Congressional District, averages around 10,000 inmates daily. Too many prisoners are doing too much time for too small a crime. The war on drugs is failing everyone: drug overdoses accounted for nearly 1,400 deaths in 2016 in New York City, a 40% increase from 2015. At least three people die in NYC every day due to a drug overdose. Despite the $1 trillion the United States spends per year on incarceration and its effects, nationwide, around 66,000 people died due to an overdose last year alone. These funds would serve citizens better if invested in education and healthy, balanced, community development.

Too often, our criminal justice system’s outcomes are plagued by systemic bias and the criminalization of poverty. Cash bail is assigned based on charge rather than ability to pay, forcing too many people to spend time in jail while awaiting trial. Today, fully three quarters of Rikers inmates, over 7,000 people, are held there not because of any conviction, but because they can’t afford to pay cash bail to the court. They are prisoners of poverty, not justice.

We have to decriminalize our society — it’s a moral imperative and it makes economic sense.


Here are few of my specific ideas and proposals:

  1. Immediate action can help fight mass incarceration.

Mandatory minimums were created in part to relieve bad judges of their discretion. However, the pendulum has swung way too far and systematically harsh punishments prevent judges from diverting people from jail who might have made a mistake but still deserve a second chance.

Misdemeanors put people under the incarceration state’s thumb at an early age. This builds files that turn into longer sentences downstream in a way that disproportionately impacts communities of color and poor communities. Removing or dramatically reducing punishments for misdemeanors would reduce the chances of a kid getting exposed to juvenile detention and other factors that increase the likelihood of criminal activity later in life.

There are other ways of responding to mistakes. Diversionary and rehabilitation programs as an alternative to prosecution can provide adolescents and other non-serious offenders with opportunities to fix their personal problems so that they can contribute to society. Evidence shows these programs are more effective than throwing a kid in jail — investing in such programs will free up resources to focus on more serious crimes.


2. Let’s end the costly and ineffective war on drugs, and legalize marijuana.

The misguided war on drugs has cost well over a trillion dollars and countless lives. Creating black markets instead of regulation has led drug-related crimes to account for about half of the total US incarcerated population. Both the Democratic and Republican Parties have been complicit in creating and perpetuating this problem.

Special interests such as the multibillion dollar private prison and tobacco industries hold citizens hostage to draconian drug laws through bought-and-paid-for legislators while states across the country, including this state, struggle with a budget crisis. Police and citizens militarize while dirty needles clutter streets children walk on to get to school. The problem is only getting worse: drug overdose death is the top killer of Americans under 50. Hepatitis C infection has increased 133% and HIV infection rates are rising as well. The opioid epidemic could claim half a million lives or more over the next decade.

The opioid epidemic is a direct result of an outdated politics of fear, violence, and oppression. Treating addiction as a crime destroys families and communities. There is voluminous evidence that an empathetic medical approach saves lives and reduces addiction rates.

Congress refuses to reform drug laws or reschedule substances that actually help people. States with recreational cannabis saw an average 125 fewer deaths per 100,000 due to overdose than states where pot is illegal. After medical marijuana legalization in 13 states, deaths associated with the use of opiate drugs fell. States that allowed some access to medical marijuana saw steady decline in opiate-related overdose deaths, reaching 33% or more six years after legal implementation.

Public schools are closing and teacher wages are stagnating in anti-cannabis states. States like Colorado, however, use cannabis, a plant that has no recorded overdose deaths, to fund education. Congress has the legal ability to put policies in place that would save more than 60,000 lives per year — it has an obligation to act.

Descheduling and progressively legalizing recreational marijuana use is a clear and easy step in the right direction. The federal government ought to follow the lead of states that have embraced legal marijuana use. Legalizing marijuana must be done in conjunction with criminal justice reforms that commute and expunge the sentences of people convicted for drug offenses that have been decriminalized. Legalizing recreational marijuana use is pre-eminently sensible and retroactive criminal justice reform is key to closing one of the most destructive chapters in American law enforcement history.

Ending the war on drugs and reforming minor crimes will give communities a chance to heal. It will allow tens of thousands of people a chance to contribute to the economy rather than sitting in jail. The war on drugs and the crimes surrounding it are a failure — they must end so resources can be spent on solving serious crimes and rebuilding education opportunities for kids.


3. To bring justice to all, we must decriminalize poverty.

Innocent people go to jail for inability to pay court-imposed costs. A grandmother with no knowledge of the crime can have her entire house seized because of some drugs sold in her basement by her grandkid. Stealing a $2 beer can lead to a conviction and a $1000 fee that costs a state like New York $60,000 a year to punish. Spending $60,000 per year on keeping one inmate in jail is a gross abuse of the public trust — this money could be spent on helping build society instead of jailing it.

Cash bail — the system of requiring people to pay money to gain their freedom while awaiting their court date– means some people get to be free for the same crime that others stay in jail for. Cash bail disproportionately impacts communities of color and directly incarcerates people for inability to pay — before there is any conviction. It is a direct contradiction to innocent until proven guilty, and can have dramatic consequences — job loss, foreclosure, eviction — on people who did nothing wrong.

Similarly, civil asset forfeiture across the country is too frequently tied to police and district attorney budgets. They can and do seize property tangentially or completely unrelated to the crime, creating downstream effects for people who may not have even known about the crime. Police should not be able to seize a grandmother’s house because her teenage grandson sold his friend some drugs. Seizing the home of someone convicted means they are more likely to be homeless upon release and more likely to turn back to crime.

Court fines and fees are imposed and can mean someone convicted of a relatively small crime — stealing a bicycle or a beer — will be subjected to sanctions that can amount to thousands of dollars. If they cannot pay, the state keeps them imprisoned and pays for any associated costs. A parking ticket can deprive an elderly man of his home and force the state to pay for expensive ongoing healthcare that had previously been the responsibility of his insurance company. The fees frequently cost the state far more than the conviction they are meant to punish.


4. We must abolish the death penalty and juvenile life without parole sentencing.

Nationwide, the death penalty has cost the United States well over a trillion dollars. The death penalty has zero demonstrable effects in terms of reducing crime. States have increasingly resorted to creating their own (often dirty) execution drugs because other countries refuse to export theirs, resulting in grotesque and horrifying public displays of state-imposed death and torture.12 Next to China, Iraq, Iran and Saudi Arabia, the United States leads the world in executing its own citizens. 161 people have been exonerated nationwide. They were on death row, set to be put to death, even though they did not commit a crime. Efforts to use DNA to determine innocence are relatively recent, so statistics suggest there are many innocent Americans who have been executed by the government.

Death penalty cases also cost about a million dollars more than equivalent cases where the death penalty is not sought, and frequently are later reduced to a lesser sentence. This means that money goes directly to the pockets of lawyers and the process, when it could be better spent elsewhere. The cost of a single death penalty case could cover 72 students for a year in a New York City public high school.

Juvenile life without parole is also a major problem. New York trails only California, Texas, Louisiana and Georgia in the number of juvenile life sentences. This state has also zealously pursued life without parole sentences. Although New York does not have the death penalty, it is one of the four harshest states in the country, alongside California, Georgia and Texas, in sentencing its citizens to life without parole. Nearly 20% of New York’s prison population carries a life sentence of some form, and one out of every nine of those convictions are for nonviolent crimes 82.7% of New York life sentences are non-white. Juveniles sentenced to life without parole, and are punished well past the time that they are any danger to the public. Moreover, The high cost of incarceration deprives others of opportunity, such as education. Throwing away the keys on kids for the sake of punishment forces other kids out of classrooms.

Law enforcement should focus on keeping the public safe. Instead, law enforcement has strayed too far to slaking a thirst for vengeance. If the death penalty only exists to serve revenge, that revenge should be weighed against the cost. While some mistakes must be punished, the current system denies too many a second chance. Severe sentences like the death penalty and juvenile life without parole are punishments with astronomical costs that do not reduce crime. Both practices should be ended, leaving the freed up resources for schools.


Until we change who votes, it’s unlikely we’ll see any changes to the broken systems that fail us daily. We must reform our democracy so that sensible criminal justice reform is possible. It’s our obligation to end America’s costly over-incarceration problems, and to deliver a promising future to those from whom the future has been robbed.