Posted on 01 August 2014.
Without a doubt, one of the most taxing of all US human rights issues is the prison system. More people are incarcerated per capita in the US than in any other recorded country. Common practices that go against human rights include the death penalty, solitary confinement and life without parole for juveniles and these practices are often heavily marked by racial differences.
Do the Crime, Do the Time
US prisons not only hold dangerous criminals, they are also packed to the rafters with people who are trapped by tough draconian drug laws. Many of those have been sentenced because of powerful groups that represent those whose livelihood depends almost entirely on locking people away from society. Privatized prisons add insult to injury – empty cells means a lower profit margin.
The prison system in the US, whether we like it or not, is linked to US drug policy. Around 25% of people who are locked up are there for drug related crimes and, although the number of people in prison for possession of marijuana is not high, the numbers arrested each year for said crimes is disproportionately high and costs millions of dollars – taxpayer dollars.
Legalize Marijuana, Free Up Space
More and more states across the US are moving to decriminalize marijuana for medical purposes and the question of whether all states should follow suit is a hotly debated one. Even President Obama has conceded the point that marijuana is no more dangerous than drinking alcohol is and it is more than likely that, in years to come, the move to legalize marijuana everywhere will pick up speed and strengthen.
While this is a good thing anyway it would be even better if that legalization had an effect on the drug policy and prison sentences, giving us the opportunity to sort out some of the human rights issues that plague the prisons and the US. More legalization and a lapsing of some of the strict policies that surround drug use and marijuana would free up a significant amount of space in US prisons, leaving it free for real criminals, those that are a real danger to society.
The Debate on Legalization Rages on
The debate is about more than just legalizing a drug. It is about individual human rights, medical need, economics and criminal justice. It is also about money. There are a lot of people who stand to lose a great deal of money if there are spaces in the prisons and if there is no need for new ones to be constructed.
These are the people who will fight against legalization. These are the people who want to ensure that possession of marijuana continues to be illegal because legalization will mean a slump in profits.
So, while keeping marijuana as an illegal drug will keep our prisons full and a small proportion of the population wealthy, it will also make an ongoing human rights problem a whole lot worse. Perhaps more serious will be the inability of the US to present itself in a good light as far as human rights goes – a problem that the country is already struggling against.