The majority of people receiving commutations were convicted of drug offenses and sentenced to egregious mandatory-minimum sentences. The announcement of commutations is commonly greeted with floods of adulation from media and advocates for fair sentencing that are laced with rhetoric calling America a nation of second chances. This conveniently frees from accountability policymakers and elected officials who stoked the flames of the war on drugs, and places the onus to change on those who have been oppressed by life sentences in federal prisons because of draconian drug policy.
But when it comes to the drug war, it is America that needs a second chance. The blame belongs to the nation that criminalized substance use, liberally doling out punishment to those who needed care.
The New York Policy Office of the Drug Policy Alliance is launching a reparative-justice campaign, Color of Pain, to reduce the harms associated with drug use, reduce the harms of draconian drug policy and repair the harms caused by the drug war in communities in New York state. To launch a campaign of this nature and magnitude in New York is critical because New York lawmakers were national leaders in implementing punitive drug policies (pdf) that other states quickly followed, and that led to the rampant incarceration of black and Latino people for low-level drug offenses (pdf), the proliferation of communicable diseases and the loss of life to drug overdose.
These decisions continue to have a negative impact on people of color in low-income communities who face a multitude of collateral consequences, including barriers to accessing public housing, employment and higher education because of of previous involvement with the legal system. Many believe that the “new approach” toward drug use, albeit late, will benefit anyone who uses or misuses drugs. But history has taught us repeatedly that rising tides don’t lift all boats.
The opioid epidemic has underscored what we have always known about drug use and misuse: Addiction is not specific to a racial group or economic class, but supposedly “race neutral” or colorblind drug policy has had a disparate impact on communities of color. We need new thinking in drug policy that owns that truth and atones for the harm done.