AFT - American Federation of Teachers

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AFT Resolutions


WHEREAS, as Michelle Alexander has shown in her 2010 book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, the explosion in the U.S. prison population between 1980 and 2006 from 350,000 to 2.3 million reflects changes in laws and policies rather than an increase in crime rates, and the changes include:

  • convictions for nonviolent and minor crimes, particularly the possession of drugs rather than their sale, which explain most of the increase in prison population over this 25-year period;
  • long sentences mandated by the "war on drugs" and various "three strikes" laws;
  • some politicians' usage of the "war on drugs" and "tough on crime" rhetoric as coded signals to stimulate interracial fear and hostility;
  • substantial financial incentives for local police departments to prioritize drug interdiction, ensuring the dramatic growth in drug arrests through federal funding and forfeiture laws; and
  • police interdiction efforts that have focused overwhelmingly on poor black and Hispanic communities despite repeated studies that demonstrate that the rate of drug use among whites nationally is similar to or slightly higher than among blacks; and

WHEREAS, the media and many public officials continue to inaccurately portray illegal drug use and drug crime as primarily a black and brown issue; and

WHEREAS, the differential enforcement of federal drug laws and the severe penalties for crack possession as compared to cocaine possession are racially discriminatory; and

WHEREAS, had the police chosen to wage the "war on drugs" in predominantly white suburbs or college campuses rather than neighborhoods of people of color, the interdiction would have been stopped in short order; and

WHEREAS, decades of such selective enforcement of federal drug laws have marginalized a significant number of blacks and Hispanics, keeping many under the control of the criminal justice system practically for life; and

WHEREAS, this marginalization is analogous to containment of the black community under Jim Crow, as has been powerfully argued by Michelle Alexander and the Center for NuLeadership on Urban Solutions, following earlier work by Angela Davis; and

WHEREAS, being convicted or pleading guilty to a youthful drug offense will likely preclude access to employment, public housing, education or voting rights for one's entire life in some states; and

WHEREAS, while ex-felons in only two states (Maine and Vermont) never lose their voting rights, ex-felons in two states (Kentucky and Virginia) and certain ex-felons in eight states are permanently disenfranchised, and ex-felons in the remaining states face barriers to the restoration of their voting rights (National Conference of State Legislatures); and

WHEREAS, the U.S. imprisons a larger percentage of its black population than South Africa at the height of apartheid, with one in three young African-American men currently under the control of the criminal justice system; and

WHEREAS, throughout the country, the huge expansion of the prison industry, with its absorption of state funds, has correlated directly with decades of underfunding of public higher education; and

WHEREAS, the American Federation of Teachers has a strong record of support for civil rights and racial justice and a strong record of leadership of that struggle within organized labor:

RESOLVED, that the American Federation of Teachers will oppose the policies of the criminalization of nonviolent offenses such as the long mandatory sentences for the possession of small amounts of illegal drugs enacted by New York's Rockefeller drug laws that have led to a 650 percent increase in the numbers of Americans—especially people of color and poor people—incarcerated over the last 25 years; and

RESOLVED, that the AFT will support a public policy focus on the treatment rather than the criminal prosecution of users of illegal drugs, reserving criminal prosecution as an appropriate strategy for the sale of illegal drugs; and

RESOLVED, that the AFT will develop and disseminate educational materials to inform its members of the social and economic costs of the mass incarceration resulting from the criminalization of nonviolent offenses—especially from laws mandating long prison sentences for the possession of small amounts of illegal drugs; and

RESOLVED, that the AFT will support the restoration of full citizenship rights for those convicted of nonviolent drug offenses once they have completed their prison sentences, including the right to vote, the right to serve on a jury, and full access to government services such as financial aid for education and housing and employment assistance; and

RESOLVED, that the AFT will support legislation that ends the federal financial incentives for state policies that result in mass incarceration through the criminalization of nonviolent offenses such as the possession of small amounts of illegal drugs.