Michael Diaz's Story, a Personal Look at Drug Offenses in the US

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Half of the people that are incarcerated in federal prisons are serving time for a drug offense and the number of people in state prisons for drug offenses today are 10 times greater than those incarcerated in 1980.

The United States is the global leader in incarceration with 2.2 million people in prisons and jails – this was an increase by 500% over the past forty years.

Laws and policies resulted in prison overcrowding and financial burdens and create an expanding penal system, even though there is increasing evidence that prove that incarceration doesn’t achieve public safety.

The dramatic growth started in the War on Drugs era during the 1980s. The number of Americans incarcerated went from 40,900 in 1980 to 450,345 in 2016. Sentencing laws, such as mandatory minimums, resulted in people convicted of drug offenses incarcerated for longer periods of time. People would serve an average of 22 months for a federal drug offense in 1986. By 2004, they would serve almost three times that length: 62 months. There are significant gender, racial, and age disparities in the system. The number of women incarcerated increased twice the rate of growth for men since the 1980s. More than 60% of people in prison are of color. Black men are six times more likely to be incarcerated while white and Hispanic men are 2.7 times as likely. Youth of color enter the system more frequently than white youth and tend to receive harsher terms of punishment. Each year, young people get sent to adult prisons to serve their sentences.

A felony conviction can revoke voting rights in 48 states. The period varies with some states restore people’s right to vote when they complete a prison term, while others disenfranchise them for life. Today, 6.1 million Americans are unable to vote because of these policies.

Since fiscal year 1998, Congress increased funding on federal prisons by 45 percent. Within this period, spending was cut on state and local law enforcement by 76 percent.

Reducing violence and incarceration in the United States can be done by legalizing, regulating, and controlling the drug industries and trade. Instead of prosecuting those that are charged with drug crimes, legalizing would result in fewer violent crimes, such as robbery and murder. Legalization would shift the focus to drug treatment for those who need it. We can address some of the problems in society, such as homelessness and under-performing schools, that lead people to the drug economy. Drug convictions reduce possibilities for employment and contribute to the cycle of poverty, drug crimes, and arrests. Reforming drug laws will prevent non-violent and violent drug offenses before they occur.

 
 
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Michael Diaz, submitted a clemency petition in 2016 but was not granted.

As of today, he served 25 years of his term and spent more than half of his life in prison.

 
 

Michael Diaz was convicted for a non-violent, low-level drug offense in 1993 and was sentenced a mandatory life sentence in prison.

He submitted a clemency petition in 2016 but was not granted. As of today, he served 25 years of his term and spent more than half of his life in prison.

While he was in prison, Diaz took the role as a mentor and a role model for younger inmates for guidance and making positive decisions in life. Many of his fellow inmates supported his clemency petition and commended Diaz for “giving those in need…taking time out to listen…[and] planting seeds of encouragement” and “even in the midst of [his] own journey… [he is] willing to help others.”

Two years ago, Diaz was selected through the prison’s Psychology Department to participate in an Overcomers Mentor Training Program because of his positive influence. He’s also working on obtaining his GED. His teacher praised him for his “upbeat personality” and teamwork skills.

Even though he’s serving a life sentence, Diaz tried maintaining relationships with his family. His siblings view him as a role model. He also has a son, who plays basketball, and hopes to see Diaz watch him play.

Diaz received training in food services while in prison and hopes to secure employment in the food service industry if he gets a release. He also wants to join a church and participate in community service programs that the church offers. He acknowledges the mistakes that he made that led him to prison and hopes to get another chance in being a civilized member of society.