Experts talk negative effects of drug policy
The Drug Policy Alliance does not want to see people in prison for drug possession, said Meagan Glaser, deputy state director for the New Jersey office of the Drug Policy Alliance.
The Rutgers Bonner Leaders Program hosted the panel as well as a screening of “The House I Live In” in their program, “Behind Bars: A deeper look into the Prison Industrial Complex.”
Since President Richard Nixon declared “the war on drugs” in 1971, it has destroyed the lives of those in poverty, mostly of black and Hispanic descent.
Glaser said the war on drugs is a colossal failure. Sending people to prison for drug possession does not increase public safety.
“We’re not putting dime bags in jail — we’re putting people in jail,” Glaser said.
Current drug laws cause huge problems for those arrested, their families and the poor, inner city communities the laws target, she said.
Drug-free school zones carry a minimum mandatory sentence of around three years. The DPA led the Compassionate Use Campaign, which focused on passing the bill for medical marijuana in New Jersey, Glaser said.
Brian Snyder, a Rutgers University MountainView Project student, said a RUMVP student is someone who has been incarcerated, and through the project has enrolled in a four-year degree program.
“After being released in 2012, I started my career at Rutgers,” said Snyder, a School of Arts and Sciences junior. “This program has undoubtedly saved my life.”
He said the war on drugs is a business, and it prevents him from guaranteed job opportunities when his employers read the checked box that says he has been committed for a felony charge.
Leonard Ward, director of the Divisions of Parole and Community Programs for the New Jersey State Parole Board, said the state needs more self-motivated members like Snyder in order to make more effective reforms in the correctional system.
“We need everyone to advocate for a better correction system,” Ward said.
He said the parole board sees the positive effects of the MountainView Project firsthand because they receive the people benefitting from the project. In 2000, the New Jersey correctional system had over 30,000 inmates, and currently, it has fewer than 22,000.
Margaret Atkins, director of the New Jersey Scholarship and Transformative Education in Prisons consortium, said the organization could not achieve the work it does without the partnership of the State Parole Board.
She said current drug laws keep certain demographics in the correctional system.
“The rich get richer, the poor get prison,” Atkins said.
James Barry, assistant commissioner of Programs and Community Services with the correction system of New Jersey, said the 85 percent rule — where convicts must complete 85 percent of their prison sentence before parole can even be considered — does not allow for individual assessment.
He said the state correction system has a 72 percent pass rate of prisoners obtaining a GED, one of the highest rates from any organization in New Jersey.
“Education is the key component in the success of reintegration,” he said.
Barry said a felony is a life sentence no matter what because of the restrictions it places on felons in terms of jobs and housing.
Glaser said she believes stigma is a large issue with the current laws, and it is important for people like Snyder and other MountainView Project students to speak out and show people they are deserving of a second chance.
She said legislators perpetuate a knowingly-flawed system because they do not want to appear soft on crime.
“It’s crucial to get involved in our democracy,” she said.
Taylor Rotolo, a School of Arts and Sciences senior, said the Bonner Leaders Program is essentially in a partnership with AmeriCorps. The event was part of the annual weeklong event run with their co-sponsor, the MountainView Project, called “Prisoner Awareness Week.”
“It’s about bridging the gap between the University and the community,” Rotolo said.
Jheysson Garcia, also a School of Arts and Sciences senior, said it could be assumed that prisoners live on the College Avenue campus because members of the MountainView Project attend Rutgers as part of the program.
“It’s not about us against them, but it’s about learning to work together,” Garcia said. “I believe the division starts to create more problems than fixing anything.”