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In 1971, President Richard Nixon named drug abuse as “public enemy number one” in the United States. Since that time, an explicit “War on Drugs” has dominated the political imagination of the United States. Since declaring a War on Drugs, domestic incarceration rates have exploded, particularly in the African-American and Latino populations. Politicians such as Nixon, Barry Goldwater, and Nelson Rockefeller each advocated for harsh drug laws and severe criminal sanctions because they argued a strong correlation existed between drug addiction and crime. These claims have dominated legislative enactments since the 1970s, virtually ignoring those who argue that drug addiction should be viewed as a public health issue rather than a criminal enterprise. When President Ronald Reagan signed the Anti-Drug Abuse Act in 1986, he effectively criminalized drug addiction; this led to the mass and disproportionate incarceration of primarily non-violent drug offenders from disadvantaged minority populations — over sixty-five percent of whom are African-American and Latino. Since declaring this War on Drugs, U.S. taxpayers have paid more than $2.5 trillion to fund this “war.” Curiously, despite the escalation of mass incarceration rates of minorities for soft drug crimes since the 1970s, violent crime rates have steadily decreased in the United States over the past several decades. No country in the world incarcerates more of its citizens than does the United States. The “tough on crime” political posturing and War on Drugs rhetoric have further led to an eruption in prison profiteering, in what has come to be known, per Angela Davis, Cornel West, and Talib Kweli, as the “prison-industrial complex.” “The prison-industrial complex [describes] an interweaving of private business and government interests” in connection with incarcerating U.S. citizens. This self-perpetuating machine extracts vast profits from free or cheap prison labor and from lucrative private and public prison contracts. Prisons “play a direct role in capital accumulation since their operation generates profit for corporations engaged in building, equipping and operating them as well as those employing prisoners as cheap labour.” The perceived political benefits of reduced unemployment rates, additional police funding, and tough rhetoric from elected politicians, judges, and prosecutors — ultimately leading to skewed policies — ensure an “endless supply” of criminal justice “clients.” When combining the potential for enormous corporate profit with a politicians’ needs to be reelected, a toxic foundation is laid that portends legislative initiatives sponsored by representatives who use “tough on crime” campaign rhetoric, while simultaneously accepting lucrative contributions from a private prison lobby intent on increasing the stream of U.S. prisoners. From this toxic mix emerges a client stream of disproportionately African-American and Latino drug offenders.

Despite the prison-industrial complex’s devastating impact on communities of color, the increasing number of imprisoned Americans energizes corporate interests. For example, one prison profiteer recently claimed that the consistent yearly increase in the prison population, “from a business model perspective[,] clearly good news.” The political will to normalize criminal sanctions in the United States by bringing incarceration rates back into line with appropriate violent behavior appears to be non-existent because the War on Drugs has become an entrenched piece of the criminal fabric in the United States, and the prison-industrial complex relies upon an ever-increasing stream of “criminals” to maximize profit flow. Perhaps this weak political will persists because, as research indicates, global governments that seek to free their capital markets from regulation and oversight also contemporaneously imprison their poor and disenfranchised at massive rates. In seeking to “free” market organization, policy makers marry harsh incarceration policies with free market fundamentalism in ways that are politically expedient to both the politician and the wealthy elite.

This article will first trace the astonishing explosion in the incarceration of U.S. citizens for non-violent drug crimes during a period in which violent crime diminished steadily. Next, this article will explore the motivating factors that lead to this explosion in prison population when crimes that are typically associated with prison time are dropping precipitously: namely, corporate prison profiteering and political expediency. This article will then conclude with suggestions for imagining a safer, saner, and more humane prison regime in the United States.

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Criminal Law Commons