A Christian Imperative

As a result of our symposium yesterday in honor of Robert B. Wilcox, we can take the question mark off of the title “Drug Policy Reform: A Christian Imperative?”

Most of you know by now that Bob was a PCG founder, Board Chair, and beloved friend. Through his leadership we became involved in opposing the so-called War on Drugs. Many people of faith wondered at the time why this should be a concern. That can no longer be said for the nearly 100 people who heard our speakers. Download the packet.

PCG board member Larry Greenfield made the theological case for why Christians should care about drug policy reform. How can we believe in a God who is “…preeminently love, made effective through mercy and forgiveness, salvation and redemption,” he asked, “and yet actively support or, out of indifference, allow public policies based on … a radically different set of assumptions?”

What, exactly are we allowing? Paula Wolff, Senior Executive of Metropolis Strategies, pointed out that our criminal justice system in Illinois “now locks up more than 48,000 people (40% of them non-violent drug offenders) and releases 40,000 each year, only to see more than 50% of them return to prison within three years.”

Anthony Cole, Vice President of Haymarket Center in Chicago, a major treatment provider, nailed it: “We are opening the wrong door, providing the wrong service, and incurring the wrong costs.” We should be providing treatment rather than prison for most drug offenders, especially when it costs far more in taxpayer money to incarcerate them.

The so-called War on Drugs has turned the United States into a “prisoner nation” with horrendous consequences for African Americans. Pam Rodriquez, head of Treatment Alternatives for Safe Communities (TASC) served as staff director of the Disproportionate Justice Impact Commission Report, mandated two years ago by the Illinois General Assembly.

The Report notes that drug abuse is roughly constant across races, but that African Americans are over nine times more likely to be incarcerated in prison or jail than whites. She cited the single most shocking figure of the entire day: at the current rate, 1 in 3 african american boys born today will be involved in the criminal justice system by the time they’re adults.

How does this happen? Disproportionate law enforcement is part of the answer. In Cook County, 60% of all arrests for low level drug use do not lead to convictions: the charges are dropped or convictions not obtained. The major problem, of course, is that these false arrests make people virtually unemployable.

The good news of the symposium was not only that people heard these facts. In the audience were leaders of broader networks that can come together and act on them. Christopher Butler, working with Kathleen Kane-Willis of the Illinois Consortium on Drug Policy at Roosevelt University, is mobilizing pastors on Chicago’s South Side; Pam Rodriguez has brought together faith leaders from across the city; Rev. Susan Johnson of Hyde Park Union Church has convened clergy and lay leaders to provide pastoral care to victims of violence; PCG is expanding its own advocacy network. Collectively all these groups can support legislation now pending in Springfield to counter the damage of our current drug law practices.

It was a good day. I think Bob Wilcox would have been pleased.

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