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Justice Department Resurrects War on Children of Drug Offenders

Why children are affected as much by punitive drug policy as their parents.

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On Thursday, January 5th, Attorney General Jeff Sessions ended yet another Obama-era policy, this time regarding protections for states that have legalized and sell marijuana recreationally. The effects of such a rollback are obvious: Sessions’ is trying to re-criminalize marijuana in states where its legally permissible. Such re-criminalization only means one thing: people will be once again vulnerable to arrest and prison time. Beyond those who are convicted, there are millions of other Americans who are and will continue to be punished by drug policy without going to prison. Innocent children, largely of color, will be caught in the crossfire. 

The move shouldn’t necessarily come as a surprise. Sessions has long been an anti-marijuana activist, more willing to forgive violent gangs of white supremacists than someone who smokes weed. In the 1980s, he said that he thought that the KKK organization was “okay until I found out they smoked pot.” This statement was in the context of a case he was taking over in which two KKK members killed a black man and hung him from a tree. That comment cost him a federal judgeship. In that hearing for the federal judgeship he called the NAACP and ACLU, two organizations that have done extensive research and activism on how public policy shapes communities of color, “un-American,” and also “communist-inspired.” 

Sessions’ priorities, it seems, are not on fighting actual violence but rather rescinding the protections that have allowed the multi-billion dollar recreational marijuana industry to flourish in five of our country’s states. Not only that, but the market has been pining for it: Shortly after Trump ascended to the presidency, the private prison industry’s stocks have been booming, largely because another Obama-era policy that signaled the end of private prisons was overturned. And now that private prisons are once again hungry for more human souls, Jeff Sessions needs to find a way to fill them. So why not borrow from a tradition from his conservative forefather, Nixon?

It has long been a theory that the War on Drugs, orchestrated by Nixon in the late sixties was a ploy to target and criminalize black people. But the problem is that it’s the truth. John Ehrlichman, most popularly remembered for his role as a Nixon advisor and key player in the infamous Watergate scandal, admitted to the fact more than two decades ago in a previously unpublished interview with Harper’s Magazine, CNN reports.

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“We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin. And then by criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities,” Ehrlichman told his interviewer in Harper’s

This horrible conceit was a brilliant strategy for keeping the White House under Nixon’s power. And the ramifications of that policy are still felt today. The people who were locked up for life as a result of the War on Drugs, which had policies that were enacted with bipartisan support as late as the nineties are still in jail. With Sessions’ action, more will surely go there. 

A 2014 Rutgers Camden study from the National Resource Center on Children and Families of the Incarcerated shows just how much children suffer from inequitable incarceration. The study ultimately and unfortunately confirms that The War on Drugs was effective: as of three years ago, Rutgers reports, roughly 13 percent of African American children had an incarcerated parent. More than half of those children were under the age of 20. These numbers have a deleterious effect on the child welfare system. About 15 percent of kids who enter the welfare system have a parent in prison, and 20 percent of those children with an incarcerated parent are African American, compared to the fact that only 5 percent of Hispanic children are in the same situation.

It would be one thing if parents who are arrested for nonviolent drug crimes do their time and return home as fully rehabilitated members of society. But that was never meant to be the case. Among other punitive policies for former felons, formerly incarcerated parents are disadvantaged when it comes to retaining their parental rights because of the Adoption and Safe Families Act, which only allows children to be placed elsewhere for 15 months before parental rights are terminated.

There’s a lot to lose by going to prison. There’s a lot to lose by going to prison for a substance that is increasingly accepted and studied by medical professionals who recognize it both safe as a medicinal treatment and a recreational substance. And there’s a lot to question about attempting to reverse the tidal wave of an industry that generates billions and billions of dollars. And there of course, remains the fact that there are hundreds of thousands of men in prison for using or selling a substance which is now legal or decriminalized to use and sell in several states.

The numbers speak for themselves: 34 percent of incarcerated persons are African American. 1.1 million men in prison are fathers of children who are minors. Of those fathers, more than half had no personal visits with any of their children and the large majority of them live anywhere from 100 to 500 miles away from their families. And even worse, children get arrested too, and African-American children are arrested as much as their adult counterparts. In fact, 32 percent of children who are arrested are black; 42 percent of children who are detained are black; 52 percent of children whose cases go to criminal court are black. Making small amounts of marijuana criminal in places they once weren’t will surely increase those numbers.

Jeff Sessions doesn’t seem to be concerned that marijuana is dangerous, or that imprisoning offenders will make them stop using marijuana. The fact that he was more willing to accept an organization that preaches white supremacy and violence toward people of color shows where Sessions’ priorities lie. It’s surprising that he’s willing to insert federal powers into an issue that has been relegated to the states. But then again, prison is a profitable enterprise, and the prisons are itching for more profit, even if it means ripping parents away from their children and forcing them into an already overcrowded foster system or into single-parent households. Sessions’ worries, and promises, aren’t with or for people of color. They aren’t with people who commit nonviolent crime. They aren’t even with Republicans, who purport to value States’ Rights above all else. They aren’t with the children whose lives will be upended by punitive drug policy. They’re with the owners of private prisons.