Documentary filmmaker Eugene Jarecki on the war on drugs and criminal-justice reform

The House I Live In director visits Sacramento to lobby for criminal-justice reform

A still from Eugene Jarecki’s new documentary, The House I Live In, which explores the war on drugs’ failure.

A still from Eugene Jarecki’s new documentary, The House I Live In, which explores the war on drugs’ failure.

Photo courtesy of Derek Hallquist

Local audiences can get their first look at Eugene Jarecki's film, The House I Live In, on Friday, April 12, and Sunday, April 14, at the Crest Theatre, 1013 K Street; visit for movie times and ticket information.

Remember the war on drugs? Yeah, it’s still going. It’s been more than 40 years since President Richard Nixon declared the pusherman as public enemy No. 1. If you’re wondering how successful a campaign it’s been, that depends on your definition. Drug addiction has never been more entrenched, and there’s an entire generation of black America that’s lived under police occupation. It’s been a boon to tough-talking politicians and a commoditized criminal-justice industry, but a resounding failure everywhere else. And most people forget America is still fighting a war on drugs. Acclaimed filmmaker Eugene Jarecki (Reagan, Freakonomics) is here to remind you.

His trenchant new documentary, The House I Live In, autopsies our decades-spanning campaign and shows how far this cancer has spread.

“It was a misguided accident of history,” he told SN&R. “We learned this in Prohibition. We just decided to act like idiots and repeat history again.”

As part of a multistate tour, Jarecki addressed state lawmakers at the Capitol this past Monday. He wants them to embrace sentencing reforms that could unpack overcrowded prisons of nonviolent drug offenders. He says California took a step in that direction last fall, when voters embraced Proposition 36, which amended the state’s three-strikes law.

Senate Bill 260, introduced last month by Sen. Loni Hancock, presents another leadership opportunity for the Golden State, the Peabody Award-winner for 2006’s Why We Fight said. The bill would allow judges to review cases in which juveniles were tried and sentenced as adults.

“I think California has an opportunity to lead the country out of the wilderness,” Jarecki said during a phone interview last week.

How much of the war on drugs do you think is well-intentioned—even as a terrible policy—and how much do you think is just purely, cynically feeding the machine?

Whether it was born to be the destructive instrument that it’s become is another matter, and I would argue that it’s almost immaterial. … Nixon, who declared it, is notoriously someone who said many private things that were quite racist. Does that mean that he had a racist agenda in the launching of the drug war? Well, that’s hard to say and unnecessary to conjecture. What we do know is that Nixon talks tough on crime at a time when he was actually quite smart on crime. He was spending two-thirds of his drug budget on treatment and only one-third on law enforcement. And so Nixon talked tough and yet, as a policy maker, was quite progressive. He was a far cry from today.

In The House I Live In, Oklahoma prison official Mike Carpenter says that politicians can’t do anything that makes them look soft on crime and expect to keep office. Does that speak to something in us, the public?

It seems to be that what Carpenter is sharing is an important new reflection on the way the drug war unfolds. There is a weariness that has emerged with tough-on-crime rhetoric. We’ve been fighting the drug war for 40 years. We spent a trillion dollars. We’ve made 45 million drug arrests. …

[W]hat do we have to show for it? We have the world’s largest prison population. We also have the highest levels of drug demand. We have the most epidemic drug problem of any Western nation, and generally the most draconian laws. That’s called failure.

Do you consider what you do a form of reporting?

Yeah. Making documentaries today has a lot more in common with journalism from once upon a time. The mark of whether I’ve done a good job or not is whether I’ve asked the toughest questions—not only of others, but myself, my own impulses to see things one way or another.

I want to elevate a subject that I think is [important], like the drug war, and I don’t want to just make a strident, one-sided pamphlet out of it. I want to get as close to the truth of the matter as I possibly can.

Did the subjects you portray, especially within the criminal-justice system, have an understanding of the kind of critical investigation you were doing?

Yes, and what distinguishes the film, I think, probably more than anything else, is how many of the strongest critics of the drug war are insiders. They are judges, lawyers, cops, jailers, drug dealers, drug users. It’s a widely portrayed family of American victims. Law-enforcement officers in this country, corrections officials, are very often hard-working, well-meaning people caught in the grips of a system they did not design. And that system … is not designed to rehabilitate. It’s not designed to elevate people. It’s designed to punish.

I guess my point was tough-on-crime rhetoric didn’t used to be unpopular. And I’m wondering to what degree the public was complicit in feeding this war on drugs.

The drug war has democratized to some degree. It remains dominantly destructive to black America, but it has in recent years seen growth among poor whites, among Latinos and among women. And those demographic changes in the footprint of the drug war have brought with them more widespread understanding outside of just black communities of the destructive and dysfunctional nature of drug law.

California is a state that, if you take a real hard look at it, you’d expect it to be more progressive than it is in its criminal-justice system. Have you followed [Assembly Bill] 109 at all, the realignment bill that’s shifted a lot of the low-level offender population to county control?

I have. That one’s worrisome. That threatens to take an opportunity—i.e., the pressure on the California system to reduce its overincarceration epidemic—and turn it into a new evil, which would be simply shifting inmates laterally to county and other facilities that are even less well-prepared to handle such numbers. I fear that, and I would prefer to see solutions like Prop. 36 and S.B. 260 that simply say, as in any system, there is a waste factor.

So, for example, S.B. 260 calls for revisiting sentences of people who were incarcerated as juveniles. This is already something that is shocking to other nations in the Western world.

I mean, anyone who is a Christian, anyone who believes in the redeemability of human nature, anyone who believes in the capacity of any human to find purpose, self-correct, should cheer the decision to let the judge evaluate the performance record of people who were sentenced as juveniles, for crying out loud. To make that one of the first places you trim fat in terms of overincarceration. Does that make sense to you? …

It does. And that’s one of those things that goes back to an earlier California initiative as well, where we decided that we should be able to sentence 14-year-olds to life in prison for capital crimes. Again—hopefully S.B. 260 is a tonic to that—but it is in response to something that California voters did agree to some years back.

My [purpose] in coming to California is to speak broadly about … where we can improve on America’s system of criminal justice and where California can lead the way in that endeavor. … And look, whether California has its back against the wall or not, I’ve seen plenty of people with their backs against the wall do stupid things. So I don’t want to undermine good choices by California leadership by saying it’s only because they had against their backs against the wall. I would say it’s partly because they had their backs against the wall.