After decades of implementing—and exporting—“tough on crime” policies that prioritize arrest and incarceration for even minor drug offenses, the United States is reconsidering its criminal justice system. These reforms should be noted in Latin America, a new report released today argues, as the region faces surging prison populations driven in part by draconian U.S.-sponsored policies.
From 1973 to 2009, the total U.S. prison population increased over seven-fold as more low-level offenders were incarcerated—instead of receiving non-prison punishments—and a range of offenses garnered significantly longer sentences. Much of the change came as part of the “War on Drugs,” and arrest and incarceration rates for drug offenses saw a particularly marked rise. From 1980 to 2010, the imprisonment rate for drug crimes grew from 15 per 100,000 to 143 per 100,000; a nearly ten-fold increase.
Yet in recent years, the United States has begun to see a paradigm shift. Proposals are emerging to replace zero-tolerance policies, which sought to criminalize all aspects of drug-related behavior, with alternatives to incarceration and more fair sentencing policies. Calls for reform have spanned the political spectrum, as liberal groups call attention to the racial and socioeconomic disparities in the enforcement of drug laws, while conservative groups question the enormous financial costs (and questionable benefits) associated with mass incarceration. There is emerging bipartisan agreement that current drug laws—and sentencing practices more broadly—are ineffective, wasteful, and unjust.
These changes are particularly important for Latin America. The United States exported much of its extreme criminal justice approach to Latin America under the guise of the “War on Drugs,” encouraging countries throughout the hemisphere to emphasize the arrest and incarceration of individuals at all levels of the drug trade. In practice, this has filled Latin American prisons with farmers, drug consumers, and low-level participants in the market, while drug trafficking networks thrive. As the United States reconsiders its own practices, Latin American countries that have been implementing similarly-flawed policies should do the same.
Between Rhetoric and Reform: Criminal Justice Reform in the United States, a new report by WOLA and the Research Consortium on Drugs and the Law (Colectivo de Estudios Drogas y Derecho, CEDD), explains how and why the U.S. prison population has grown in recent years, and the weak relationship between rising rates of incarceration and falling rates of crime. It outlines the innovative policy reforms currently underway, the changes they have already achieved, and what may be accomplished in the future. The paper concludes with reflections on the significance of the U.S. reforms now underway for Latin American countries currently considering criminal justice and sentencing reforms.
Photo: Courtesy Pete Souza/White House. President Obama in the first visit of a sitting president to a federal penitentiary.