We write to you today as a coalition of black and brown women and mothers who have seen and experienced first hand the devastating effects of the war on drugs on our communities and the collateral consequences suffered by people with weak drug convictions .
For many years, incarcerated people, family members, activists and organizers have called on those in power to use some of their authority to end the war on drugs.
“It is in the light of these cries that we applaud and welcome your announcement [last week] that you pardon people who have federal convictions for simple possession of marijuana. We also appreciate your drawing attention to the collateral consequences that often accompany drug convictions and draconian laws that continue to unnecessarily classify cannabis as a Schedule 1 drug.”
-Nekima Levy Armstrong, civil rights lawyer and executive director of the Wayfinder Foundation
“Even though I became the ‘poster’ for federal drug convictions gone wrong in the 1990s and won executive clemency from President Clinton in December 2000, there is still many other incarcerated women of color, like my friend Michelle West, who are waiting for the opportunity to live a life that would eclipse who they were, if given the chance. Mercy is her only hope.
-Kemba Smith, former prisoner of the drug war and author of “Poster Child: The Kemba Smith Story”
“Your rulings represent a needed – and long overdue – change that will affect thousands of people who have been convicted under federal drug laws (and rules governing the District of Columbia). “However, as the one of the architects of the 1996 crime bill, you probably know that there are millions more people who are trapped under the crushing weight of other federal and state laws that use drugs as an excuse to criminalize poverty and mental health. ”
-Chauntyll Allen, Director of Criminal Justice Policy and Activism, Wayfinder Foundation
We demand sweeping changes, not just to federal marijuana convictions, but to the suite of laws that make up the war on drugs that have led to mass incarceration in the United States.
In addition, the federal government should pay reparations to individuals and families affected by the war on drugs. According to the ACLU, black women are more than three times more likely than white women to be incarcerated, and Latinas are 69% more likely to be incarcerated than white women. A disproportionate number of these women are low-income and mothers of children under 18.
When mothers are incarcerated, their families not only lose a primary caretaker, but also a primary wage earner. The effects of imprisoning low-income women exacerbate economic inequalities that affect historically marginalized families and communities, while compounding the economic consequences for generations to come.
Low-income black and brown women have also suffered the loss of parental rights due to marijuana possession and drug convictions. We demand a plan for the restoration and reunification of children and families caught up in the war on drugs and an acknowledgment of the harm that has been done.
Formerly incarcerated people are routinely denied access to jobs that pay living wages, while unfair laws make it harder for the families of incarcerated people to live in public or subsidized housing.
Young people with drug convictions have lost access to federal Pell grants, which remain one of our society’s primary mechanisms for the upward economic mobility of low-income students. None of the wealth stolen due to the war on drugs and mass incarceration has been returned to the people, and we will not stop fighting until that is the case.
We agree with your call to action for other leaders, including governors, to make changes at the state level to address the impacts of simple possession of marijuana convictions. However, we ask you to go further by pushing for the repeal and dismantling of all laws that block the house of cards that is the war on drugs.
We note, in particular, the Congressional Black Caucus, which should play a stronger leadership role in the outcome of relevant federal policies, including mandatory minimum sentences and sentencing guidelines in drug cases, the discrepancies glaring statutory violations in sentencing for crack cocaine versus powder cocaine, the loss of discretion of federal sentencing judges, as well as draconian drug conspiracy laws – which prosecutors use to disproportionately to punish low-income people of color, often outside the jurisdiction of the court.
State laws also need to change, as there are more than 12 times more people incarcerated at the state or local level for drug offenses compared to the federal level. States should repeal laws that have these disparate effects, while using the other tools at their disposal to mitigate ongoing damage in the short term.
This should include granting their own pardons, restoring the franchise to felons, freeing drug addicted prisoners, expunging the criminal records of those affected, and decriminalizing marijuana, at the very least. People who have faced unjust incarceration as a result of the war on drugs should also receive reparations for the significant and irreparable harm they have suffered.
Finally, states and the federal government must reinvest funds wasted on all aspects of the war on drugs in low-income communities of color. Black and brown communities in particular need greater investment in high-quality job opportunities, affordable housing and homeownership programs, youth programs, education and entrepreneurship young people.
We also demand additional resources for reintegration services, so that people returning from jails and prisons can better reintegrate into society.
Thank you for taking important, but long overdue, steps to decriminalize marijuana. At the same time, we urge you to go further in your efforts to end the war on drugs and free more people from unjust and unnecessarily harsh penalties for drug-related crimes.
We would welcome the opportunity to meet with you and other leaders to discuss our concerns and requests. Too often, the voices of black and brown women go unheard when it comes to public policy issues like these, which affect us most directly. Thanks in advance for your consideration.