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The War on Drugs = A War on Women and Families

Lenora M. Lapidus,
Former Director,
Women's Rights Project, ACLU
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June 8, 2011

June 2011 marks the 40th anniversary of President Richard Nixon’s declaration of a “war on drugs” — a war that has cost roughly a trillion dollars, has produced little to no effect on the supply of or demand for drugs in the United States, and has contributed to making America the world’s largest incarcerator. Throughout the month, check back daily for posts about the drug war, its victims and what needs to be done to restore fairness and create effective policy.

The “war on drugs” has had a devastating impact on women and families, who have been greatly affected by policies like mandatory minimum sentences, prosecution of low-level drug offenses, increased conviction and imprisonment of those with relationships to drug dealers, and criminalization of women with drug addiction and mental health problems and histories of sexual abuse.

As the ACLU report “Caught in the Net” details, the number of women with convictions, especially low-level drug-related convictions, has skyrocketed. Over the past two decades, the number of women in prison increased at a rate nearly double that of men. Women of color are disproportionately affected: African-American women are more than three times as likely as white women to be incarcerated, and Hispanic women are 69 percent more likely. Two thirds of women state prisoners are the mothers of minor children.

When individuals leave prison, they face a host of barriers to obtaining housing, employment, education and subsistence benefits for themselves and their children — including bars on receiving governmental assistance based on prior drug convictions. Women of color, who are disproportionately poor and often bear the primary responsibility for raising their children, are disproportionately dependent on the government to satisfy their basic human needs through programs like public housing, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families and Medicaid, and therefore are particularly impacted by governmental bans on receiving such assistance based on prior drug convictions.

Women also are affected by policies targeting members of their families who are involved in the criminal justice system. For example, women who live in public housing may be evicted if a member of their household engages in criminal activity, and people with criminal histories are frequently denied admission to public housing in the first place. In 2002 alone, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development reported that 46,657 applicants for conventional, project-based public housing were denied admission because of “one strike” criteria (the policy of excluding people with criminal records from public housing). Advocates believe the number of people actually denied housing is, in fact, far higher, because would-be applicants are often turned away by housing officials before they even fill out an application.

Many public housing authorities additionally maintain lists of “banned” individuals who are not allowed on the premises — some of these banned individuals have criminal drug convictions or went through the juvenile justice system; others were arrested but never prosecuted or convicted of any offense. Once someone is on the list, he or she is not allowed on the property of the public housing authority, even if invited by a resident of the housing complex. As a result, residents of some public housing properties are not allowed to invite members of their families to come to their homes to help care for children or elderly relatives, or to visit with family at holidays or important gatherings. These banning policies tear families apart.

Recently, the ACLU successfully challenged one such banning policy in Annapolis, Maryland, where Dalanda Moses had lived in public housing with her family for most of her life. In 2009, she and her boyfriend, James Alexander, had a baby girl named Mariah. Because James was on the housing authority’s banned list after being arrested for a drug offense, he was not permitted to visit Dalanda while she was pregnant. During her pregnancy, Dalanda suffered from health problems; nevertheless, the Housing Authority for the City of Annapolis (HACA) told Dalanda’s mother that she and Dalanda would be evicted if James came to their home. As a result, James had to pick Dalanda up away from her home in order to take her to doctors’ appointments. After Mariah was born, Dalanda was forbidden from inviting James into her home to help feed and care for their daughter. Dalanda was ultimately forced to move off HACA property – away from her own mother and sister — so that James could help raise their baby and be a part of her family.

As Dalanda’s story illustrates, public housing authorities’ banning policies — which affect a large number of people who have been charged with low-level drug offenses, and particularly poor women of color — force people to choose between affordable housing and spending time with their families.

Thankfully, the problems in Annapolis have been rectified, and families living in public housing there will no longer be torn apart by unfair banning policies. Unfortunately, public housing authorities across the United States continue to utilize bans of this type, either as official policies or as a matter of practice — including in New York, Massachusetts, Washington, Vermont, Illinois, Alabama, Minnesota, West Virginia, Maine, Oregon, and many other states.

It is time for this war on families to end. The 40-year-old “war on drugs” has been a war of little success but huge casualties. The collateral damage of this war far exceeds any benefits. We must reform this country’s drug policies to stop fighting our own citizens and instead enact policies that help those individuals who need mental and physical health care to cure addictions (approximately 80 percent of women in state prisons have substance abuse problems), and that provide jobs and economic opportunity for all members of our society so that dealing drugs is no longer the best-paying job available. It is time for our government to work to improve the lives of all members of our community rather than continuing to fight this war against poor women of color and their children.

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