In Wayward Puritans: A Study in the Sociology of Deviance, Kai Erikson states,
…the agencies built by society for preventing deviance are often so poorly equipped for the task that we might well ask why this is regarded as their “real” function in the first place. (p. 14)
He notes that the amount of deviance and crime found in a society is largely related to how many resources we commit to looking for it. And once we’ve created institutions and industries to deal with particular types of deviance, we tend to continuously find enough deviance to continue to justify the system’s existence. If we’ve built a large criminal justice system, that system takes on a self-sustaining life of its own. Even if we eradicated all major crime as we know it, Erikson suggests, the agencies would turn their attention to behaviors we’ve previously ignored or treated as relatively unimportant, finding a new reason for the system’s existence and access to resources.
In the past several decades, fighting the War on Drugs has become an important role of the U.S. criminal justice system. Drug infractions are a major cause of the growth in imprisonment rates and, especially, the racial gap in incarceration.
I thought of Erikson’s insights when I recently saw the trailer for The House I Live In, an upcoming documentary about the impact of the War on Drugs. The trailer highlights the way that low-level drug dealers and addicts are fed as raw material into the criminal justice system. Law enforcement agencies often benefit directly from seizures of cash or property during drug busts, which then becomes property of the agency; additionally, agencies that design programs to target drug use/sales often get access to federal funds for training and equipment that they’d have no way to purchase otherwise:
The War on Drugs is an industry, one with vested interests with a powerful motivation to ensure its continued existence and expansion, regardless of any objective cost-benefit analysis of the consequences of incarcerating such a large proportion of the population or even of the effectiveness of our policies for actually decreasing drug use.