Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. These, proclaims the Declaration of Independence, are the unalienable rights with which we have been endowed by our Creator. These are the rights woven into the constitutional fabric of the United States.
And yet, for all the profound language of our founding documents, it remains the case that not every American enjoys these rights equally. In few places is this problem clearer than the realm of criminal drug sentencing and mass incarceration.
Recently, US Attorney General Jeff Sessions ordered that federal prosecutors pursue the harshest possible sentences for criminal defendants when charges are readily provable. This includes mandatory minimum prison sentences even for minor, non-violent drug offenses.
Of course, one might ask why aggressively prosecuting illicit drug use is problematic. If we want to minimize the use of substances that cause bodily harm and disruptions to communities, does it not make sense to establish consequences steep enough to deter such use?
This kind of logic may appear reasonable at first glance, but the truth of the matter is that such an approach has institutionalized a system that incarcerates and punishes citizens—particularly African-Americans—at rates not seen anywhere else in the world.
The United States, home to just under 5% of the world’s population, houses roughly 22% of the world’s prisoners. The prison population has increased 700% since 1980 despite the fact that 90% of those new inmates are non-violent offenders. This means that several million Americans are currently imprisoned in facilities that are filled past capacity, the vast majority for offenses that did not physically harm another person.
But one of the single most worrying facets of this issue centers on criminal prosecution and race. For example, African-Americans and Caucasians report being equally likely to use marijuana, but the former are 3.7 times as likely as the latter to be arrested for its possession or use and more likely to face criminal conviction. Roughly 1 in 3 black males can expect to go to prison in their lifetimes. And while the majority of drug users and dealers in the United States are white, three quarters of those imprisoned for drug offenses are African-American or Latino.
Such racial disparities in rates of arrest and conviction are staggering and should be deeply troubling to us. But rather than focusing on the numbers, perhaps there is a more personal question we should be asking ourselves: What do we will for our fellow Americans?
When we speak of our founding documents, do we really believe what they say? Do we wish for every last one of our fellow citizens, regardless of creed or skin color, to enjoy the freedom to pursue a life of happiness? To be able to learn from his or her mistakes without a 25-year minimum prison sentence? Or are we comfortable living in a world where such freedom is denied to others—especially minorities and minors—for a lifetime because of a few poor choices? I would suggest that, if we are comfortable in such a world, some serious resorting of priorities is needed.
Republican senator Rand Paul was right on the money when he wrote that we should be treating the nation’s drug epidemic for what it is: a public health crisis, not an excuse to send people to prison and turn a mistake into a tragedy.
Such an attitude of willing the good for each of our fellow Americans is one we would all do well to adopt. After all, the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, if unalienable, are not partisan. Defending every citizen’s access to them shouldn’t be, either.