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January 8, 2006 - Gainesville Sun (FL)

Reconstruction And The War On Drugs

By Kinloch C. Walpole, director of the Gateless Gate Zen Center of Gainesville, a group that works with prison inmates in North Central Florida

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The unfolding story of ex-felons voting rights in context of the war on drugs parallels the history of African Americans fight for voting rights during reconstruction.

There are over 600,000 disenfranchised voters in Florida who are ex- felons. The civil turbulence that surrounded the march to Selma is not a road we need to travel again.

Reconstruction marked a period where exploitive cultures struggled to regain and then maintain political power after losing it in the Civil War. The tools of the struggle included poll taxes, literacy tests and criminal disenfranchisement enshrined in state constitutions. The Ku Klux Klan and public lynching were the underlying forces behind institutional bigotry and segregation.

In 1965, the repression erupted into the national consciousness on "Bloody Sunday" at the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama. The brutality at Selma unleashed over five years of civil unrest marked by riots, demonstrations and the formation of violent revolutionary movements.

All of this was happening against a back drop of horrendous daily casualty counts in Vietnam and the sense of impending doom associated with a potential nuclear holocaust from the Cold War.

The blatant abuse of illegal drugs appeared to be one of the main threads woven through the civil unrest. A war on drugs held the promise as a simplistic solution to the civil discontent erupting across the country. But what appeared to be a simple solution to difficult problems morphed into a problem in its own right.

From its inception in 1971 till the end of the cold war, the war on drugs was like a dormant volcano. The players on both sides of the war were becoming entrenched in the politics, culture and economies of illegal drug abuse.

The crime wave that erupted around the late 1980s and continued through the 1990s was centered on the shifting dynamics of the drug trade. The main shift was the transformation of the drug business, which was mostly small entrepreneurs, to the organized efforts of the Mafia, as well as the cartels of Mexico and Colombia.

The drug trade also shifted to accommodate improved enforcement mechanisms and increasing severity of penalties. This shift was from the bulky units of the more benign marijuana to drugs with an increase in potency and addictive qualities, such as heroine, cocaine and methamphetamines.

Essentially, the war on drugs and fighting crime became the new badges of political relevance in the election of 1988. Our elected officials needed a crusade to save us from ourselves and found it.

But the crime wave associated with illegal drugs was artificial in that it took what was largely a medical problem with social and spiritual dimensions and turned it into a legal problem. Trying to fix a medical problem with the rule of law is analogous to sending a SWAT team into a hospital to wipe out a virus.

Florida's felon voting laws date back to 1838 when they were used to limit the number of freed slaves who were eligible to vote. Today, there are an estimated 600,000 ex-felons of which 60 percent were convicted of drug related or drug inspired crimes.

Think of the political careers made by getting tough on crime that would disintegrate with their enfranchisement. Especially, in a state where there is a legislature so well entrenched that all but one incumbent was re-elected in the last election.

Think of the cataclysmic economic upheavals of those invested in getting "tough on crime" should the war on drugs end. The prison- industrial complex is not a matter to be taken lightly. There are 149,000 men, women and children locked up in the jails and prisons throughout Florida.

Not to be forgotten are over 151,000 citizens on probation and parole that are supervised by the Department of Corrections. And there are over 49,000 men and women employed by federal, state and county jurisdictions to keep the inmates in their jails and prisons.

Not to be overlooked in this equation is the judicial complex that embraces the police, courts and related services. Then there is the industry that provides the goods and services these organizations depend on. We are now talking about a ratio of 10 to 15 people being economically dependent on each prison inmate.

Florida courts have taken the first steps in the restoration of voting rights by requiring the state to streamline and facilitate the restoration process. However, the struggle between the courts and legislature on this issue has yet to take form.

The pool of disenfranchised voters remains at 600,000 with another 300,000 soon to join it. The war on drugs is the single largest contributor to the pool of disenfranchised voters. The question of who will galvanize the disenfranchised and what direction they will be led is still open.

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