In prison, those things withheld from and denied to the prisoner become precisely what he wants most of all. Eldridge Cleaver
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What better way to address a nation's longstanding, deep-seeded challenges than by pouncing on a tragedy with promises to clone a dramatic, highly visible piece of failed policy?
At the same time that the nation is contemplating a change to destructive criminal-justice laws and the failed war on drugs, right-wing elements are doubling down on bullheaded zero-tolerance approaches to complex social and legal issues.
Erecting their soapboxes on the back of Kate Steinle, who was murdered over Independence Day weekend by an illegal immigrant, Republican leaders have already announced plans to write a new law (or several) targeting aliens who have previously been deported. Their promise to ensure the safety of the public from such chronic offenders thus far hinges on federally-mandated incarceration standards, starting with a minimum five-year prison sentence.
Appearing tough on crime--illegal immigration notwithstanding--tends to provide good returns in public-opinion polls, but mandatory minimums for drug-related crime is practically a poster child for ideas that sound good but didn't work. And given the close association between America's War on Drugs and immigration troubles along its southern border, policymakers might reasonably be expected to think at least a little more creatively about their response to a crime involving an illegal immigrant.
But that would assume that their priorities extended beyond their reelection plans.
In the wake of the Supreme Court decision on gay marriage, marijuana's legalization looks poised to be one of the biggest new social initiatives to sweep from being unthinkable to federal policy.
A significant component of this momentum is fueled by broad recognition of the disproportionately negative consequences of current federal policy, and the unaffordable prison population it has created.
Nearly half of America's prison population is incarcerated on drug charges. Of these, more than 97% are being held for either trafficking or possession of drugs. States are spending upward of $50 billion annually to maintain their prisons, at a cost of $29,000 per inmate. This inflexible treatment of addicts and nonviolent offenders is expensive, destructive, and deserves neither continuation nor expansion.
But that is exactly what the reactionary proposals are calling for: blanket consequences without respect to cost, context, or effectiveness.
Just like prison overcrowding, illegal immigration is directly related to America's War on Drugs. As researchers at the University of Texas El Paso (UTEP) have shown, domestic policy in the U.S. not only fueled a lucrative trade in narcotics and weapons, but a whole system of cartel-directed propaganda that helps promote and maintain the black market on both sides of the border. Pressure on Mexican authorities to stop traffic on their side is doomed as long as demand is funneled to illicit markets through a devotion to prohibition, and economics reward underground markets more than legitimate trade.
And on the U.S. side, targeting addicts and small-time dealers wastes resources punishing non-violent criminals, without impeding the flow of drugs, weapons, and unaccountable wealth, or preventing violent crimes from occurring.
Now a few loud voices are asking the country to associate illegal immigration with overzealous sentencing just like it already does to drug-related offences. In this way, determined immigrants can overload prison cells alongside other non-violent criminals, at the expense of tax payers and public safety.
In the wake of a profound tragedy, opportunistic grandstanders are jumping on their cherished anti-immigrant bandwagon to shoehorn yet another blunt instrument onto the books under the guise of protecting the public from dangerous criminals. Violence will still disrupt society, and illegal immigrants will still attempt to enter the U.S., but more money will be spent processing them both once they make contact with authorities.
If mandatory sentencing doesn't discourage repeat offenders from engaging in petty crimes, why would illegal immigrants--already a highly scrutinized and vulnerable group--suddenly stop trying to escape their respective homelands?