The Wartorn House We Live In
As part of the LASIS coverage of Fordham Law School’s Forum on Law, Culture and Society’s film forum, I had the opportunity to see filmmaker Eugene Jarecki’s documentary “The House I Live In” followed by a panel with Mr. Jarecki, The New Yorker film critic David Denby, and Fordham law professor Deborah Denno. Moderator Thane Rosenbaum noted that this was the first time the film festival was showing a work that had a concurrent commercial release in its seven-year history, which speaks to the growing success of the annual program.
The film, which won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance and counts Brad Pitt, John Legend, Russell Simmons, and Danny Glover among its executive producers, deals with the effects of our country’s 40-plus years of the War on Drugs. This take-no- prisoners movement, that makes prisoners of far too many, relies on law enforcement and mandatory minimum sentencing provisions to punish people caught with, or selling, drugs.
The documentary is told through the viewpoint of prison guards, prisoners, judges, law professors, various experts, and even Mr. Jarecki’s childhood caretaker, Nannie Jetter, whose son James grew up with Mr. Jarecki. James died of complications from HIV, which contracted through intravenous heroin use.
The conclusion these perspectives collectively lead to is that far-reaching government corruption, and deep-seeded classism, and xenophobia have fueled this “War” on drugs, which, as the film frames it, amounts to a failure with a trillion dollar price tag.
At a little under two hours the movie packs quite a punch. It chronicles the drug war from its inception under the Nixon administration by showing how harsh anti-drug statutes, which impose minimum sentences for non-violent drug offenders, have led to overcrowding in U.S. prisons. Though the U.S. has only five percent of the total world population it has 25 percent of the overall prison population, beating out even China, a country that has four times as many people as we do. These sad and troubling statistics are largely the outcome of our flawed policies against drugs.
Some more statistics: African Americans make up approximately 13 percent of the U.S. population, and only slightly more than that, about 14 percent of our drug users. But they represent approximately 54 percent of those imprisoned for drug-related offenses.
Mr. Jarecki also delves into the disparate sentences guidelines that seem biased against our poorer communities. For instance, before 2010, a person caught with 500 grams of cocaine would face a minimum five year sentence – but, if crack was your drug of choice, as it was for many poor minorities, you would only need to be holding five grams – just one percent of the amount needed for cocaine – to face the same mandatory sentence. And the difference between the two drugs? Baking soda or ammonia. Crack is cheaper than cocaine and easy to make, making it a popular drug of choice among minorities in poor urban neighborhoods. This, coupled with mandatory minimum sentences, has resulted in minorities accounting for the majority of all drug arrests.
As the lights came on after the film, one thing that stood out to me was that most of us in the room were white, as is true of many law-related functions. (The event, quite rightly, I think, counted toward CLE credits). This was not a detail lost on Mr. Jarecki who, speaking with sweeping arm gestures, revealed that he seeks to show his work in unconventional places in order to initiate discussions on the film’s themes and encourage change. For instance, he screened this film at the Republican National Convention, a contingent that has been traditionally more averse to drug-sentencing reform.
The inequities of the War on Drugs are no secret. Judges have spoken out or even resigned because of these overly burdensome guidelines that may not even be necessary. For instance, when New York State passed The Rockefeller Drug laws in 1973, which required judges to issue a minimum prison sentence of at least 15 years to anyone caught either selling two ounces or possessing four ounces of any narcotic drug, including marijuana, it set the tone for the rest of the country in what was to be done with drug offenders. But in 2009 New York’s legislature amended the laws to allow judicial discretion in minimum sentences, as well as in deciding when an offender could be sent to a rehabilitation program instead of to jail. Since then, we’ve seen a 37 percent decrease of drug offenders in prison, but it’s not enough.
During the panel discussion, Mr. Denby, a veteran screen critic, pointed out how difficult it is to make a film that covers as much ground as this one does. Mr. Denby added that he was especially moved by the tale of a father who served jail-time for selling drugs, and his son, who is now in prison for the same offense. The panelists agreed with Mr. Denby that the film was more potent as a documentary than it would have been as a feature film. By featuring real people from across the country, the film had an impact it would not have had were it merely “based on a true story,” but necessarily dramatized and fictionalized.
Professor Denno, who was a member of the U.S. Sentencing Commission’s Drugs/Violence Task Force in the 90s, said quite plainly that the War on Drugs is ineffective in combating the problem of drug use in the United States. Academics knew decades ago this so-called “war” was unwinnable, she told us, but politicians continue to pursue it because saying you’re willing to enter a battle against drugs is an easy argument for politicians to make when trying to score points with the public.
Both “The House I Live In” and the eponymous song (it was penned by Abel Meeropol whose adopted children spoke at a Fordham Film Forum panel last year) exhort people to ask themselves, “What does America mean to me?” To Mr. Jarecki, it means so much that he made a stirring film about a complicated topic, in an effort to bring awareness to audiences, and change to inequitable and destructive policies. I urge everyone to see it.
UPDATE, November 7, 2012: On November 6, Washington and Colorado voted to legalize recreational marijuana use. And 14 other states, including New York, which previously had a mandatory minimum 15 year sentence for possessing four ounces of marijuana, have decriminalized cannabis use, treating it like a minor traffic violation. It is clear that views on recreational drug use have changed since the War on Drugs was first waged.