An Open Letter to Donald Trump — 9/7/2020
- Phoenix Congress 2020 represents members of the American Union, who are willing to vote for both Republicans and Democrats in the 471 federal races who will meet our terms, including Donald Trump.
- This is the seventh in a series of open letters, explaining our demands. These links are to the first, second, third, fourth, fifth, and sixth.
September 7th, 2020
Dear President Trump,
Despite making up only 4% of the world’s population, the United States incarcerates more than 20% of the world’s prisoners. More than 2 million Americans will wake up behind bars tomorrow morning. This begs the question, Mr. President, why do we have so many of our citizens in prison?” Truthfully, it’s a long story.
In the 1970s, the United States started the “war on drugs.” The government led a worldwide campaign to fight the production, transportation, and use of illicit drugs. President Nixon even said that drug use was “public enemy number one.”
In June 1986, a midterm election year, Boston Celtics draft pick and University of Maryland basketball player Len Bias died of a cocaine overdose in a dorm on Maryland’s campus. About a week later, Don Rogers–rookie of the year defensive player for the Cleveland Browns–overdosed on cocaine as well. Both of these deaths brought the drug conversation to the forefront of political policy and by October President Reagan signed the Anti-Drug Abuse Act into law.
The Anti-Drug Abuse Act, among other things, greatly increased the number of drug offenses with mandatory minimum sentences. Following this and other criminal justice laws passed in the 80s, public perception of the purpose of prisons changed. Whereas about half of Americans in the 1980s understood the purpose of prisons to be rehabilitation rather than punishment, by 1993 61% of Americans believed prisons were for punishment, not rehabilitation.
This trend prompted both parties to adopt a “tough on crime” approach to criminal justice throughout the 1990s; Bill Clinton did this successfully in his campaign and signed the 1994 Crime Bill. By 1995 there were 1.5 million people in prison in the U.S., and in 2003 Congress created or expanded 40 mandatory sentences.
Mr. President, you have made efforts to address the mass incarceration problem in America, and you should be commended for them. In 2018 you pardoned Alice Johnson who was serving a life sentence for nonviolent drug offense and money laundering charges. That same year, you signed the First Step Act into law, expanding programs that offer rehabilitative services to prisoners who have done their time. It was a major bipartisan effort toward criminal justice reform.
In 2020 we call on you to continue this work by ending the war on drugs. Not only does the war on drugs fail to recognize the humanity in drug offenders, it disproportionately affects minority communities, and contributes to low-income families remaining in a generational cycle of poverty. We can do better in the 21st century.
Is it a coincidence that minority communities are disproportionately affected by the war on drugs, or is it intentional? According to John Ehrlichman, President Nixon’s counsel and assistant for domestic affairs, minority communities were the targets of the war on drugs. In a 1994 interview, Ehrlichman said that “by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities.”
Is it any wonder, then, that Black and Latino men make up 57% of the prison population in the U.S. despite their general population percentage being less than half that number? Not only that, but the imprisonment rate (after arrest) for Black men is 4.1 times that of white men, and 1.5 times higher for Latino men. Mr. President, we have a problem.
One in five of America’s prisoners are incarcerated because of drug offenses. In 2020, America can do better on behalf of its citizens. Drug addiction is not a criminal act, it is a health issue. Mr. President, you have the ability to change the public conversation about drug use and to bring this justice reform to the forefront.
Mr. President, you could go down in history as the President who ended mass incarceration, ended over-policing of minority communities, and brought about a societal shift that changed the future of countless families. Will you do it?
(You can read the next open letter here.)
Other articles on Medium:
A call to action around Martin Luther King, Jr.’s triple evils: The Marginalized Must Unionize in 2020
A look at our duties as Americans and the legislation they inspire: The Blueprint for a Better America