The disaster that is America’s war on drugs has many manifestations. One of them is the
unwarranted traffic stops many citizens undergo so that a cop may check us out and see if
he can smell some reefer burning in the car. Another is the high rate of crime, not just to
settle turf battles and rivalries among dealers, distributors and cheated buyers, but the
countless property crimes that fuel millions of drug habits across the nation. Then there is
the spread of HIV/AIDS by heroine users who do not have the means or the opportunity to
procure fresh needles. Another disaster has been the tens of millions of Americans arrested
and incarcerated in the 39 years since Richard Nixon declared war on drugs. Most alarming
of all is the wide disparity between blacks and whites who do time for drugs in South Carolina.
Below are some statistics compiled by the ACLU on effects of 39 years of drug war on our
• For every dollar South Carolina spends on education, it spends only 49 cents on corrections.1
• South Carolina’s overall incarceration rate ranks in the top fifth of states nationwide.2
• South Carolina’s drug use rates are comparable to those of the rest of the country, yet South
Carolina’s rate of imprisonment for drug offenses ranks seventh in the nation, putting an
unusually large burden on the state’s taxpayers and justice system.3
• Whites and African Americans use drugs at virtually identical rates, yet in Charleston County,
you are 24 times more likely to go to jail or prison for a drug offense if you are African American
than if you are white. This racially disproportionate rate of imprisonment for drug offenses
ranks among the 50 worst for mid-sized counties in all of America.4
• In Richland County, you are 17 times more likely to go to jail or prison for a drug offense if you
are African American than if you are white.5
• In Greenville County, you are 14 times more likely to go to jail or prison for a drug offense if you
are African American than if you are white.6
A FRESH APPROACH…
South Carolina’s bursting prisons paired with the ongoing economic crisis demand a fresh approach to
nonviolent drug offenses. Unfair and ineffective laws that require lengthy incarceration of nonviolent
drug offenders have squandered precious taxpayer dollars and pushed the state to the brink of
bankruptcy. “Lock ’em up and throw away the key” policies fail to recognize and resolve the root
causes of drug use and abuse, and undermine the health and safety of us all.
A FRESH LOOK AT SOUTH CAROLINA AND THE FAILED “WAR ON DRUGS”
SO, WHAT CAN OUR POLICYMAKERS DO?
• Create alternatives to incarceration: Eliminate imprisonment for all nonviolent drug
possession offenses, instituting civil penalties and non-prison alternatives, such as treatment,
which have been found more effective and cost-effective than incarceration.
• Let judges judge: Eliminate one-size-fits-all mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses,
allowing judges to make appropriate sentencing decisions on a case-by-case basis.
• Repeal the “three strikes” law, which often senselessly punishes minor offenses with major
terms behind bars to the detriment of us all.
• Take practical steps to prevent recidivism: Facilitate reintegration into the community by
removing the barriers to voting, employment, housing, and driving that now face individuals
leaving prison. For example, remove provisions that suspend the driver’s license of a drug
offender when there is no evidence that he or she was driving while impaired.
• Make room in prison for serious, violent offenders: Reform the State’s parole system to bar reincarceration
for technical violations.
• Research the impact of drug sentencing: Finally, more state- and local-level data is needed to
better understand the fiscal and human costs of lengthy sentences for nonviolent drug
offenders. The State should make specific data available and collect new data where needed to
allow for an honest accounting of necessary reforms.
For the sake of public safety, fairness and South Carolina’s fiscal solvency, a new approach is needed
1 Pew Center on the States, “One in 100: Behind Bars in
America 2008,” February 2008, p. 31.
2 Ibid, p. 34.
3 Justice Policy Institute, “The Vortex: The Concentrated Racial
Impact of Drug Imprisonment and the Characteristics of Punitive
Counties,” December 2007, p. 9.
4 Ibid, Appendix A, p. 26. Charleston ranks #47, with an African American-towhite
drug prison or jail admission ratio of 24.
5 Ibid, p. 25.
6 Ibid, p. 25.
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