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  • Charlotte Street Films

    Filmmaker Eugene Jarecki talked with police, drug dealers, defendants, inmates, their loved ones and a judge to examine sentencing rules.

  • Courtesy of Derek Hallquist

    Jail inmates are shown in "The House I Live In." "America is the leading jailer in on Earth," notes filmmaker Eugene Jarecki.

'The House I Live In' questions long drug war

Published: Friday, Apr. 5, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 8TICKET
Last Modified: Saturday, Apr. 6, 2013 - 8:49 am

Eugene Jarecki won the 2012 Sundance Film Festival documentary Grand Jury Prize and then kept going.

An activist filmmaker, Jarecki has used his documentary "The House I Live In" – a sweeping indictment of America's four-decade war on drugs – as a tool for education and influencing public policy.

On Monday, Jarecki will address the California Legislature and then speak at a special lawmaker screening at the Crest Theatre hosted by Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, other lawmakers and actor Danny Glover. Seats will be available free to the public.

"House" also will be shown on public television that night and at the Crest on April 12 and 14.

In "House," Jarecki rides along with cops and drug dealers, and goes inside a prison to speak to inmates and into courtrooms to interview a judge and a defendant. He speaks to inmates' loved ones, underscoring how the drug war's "mandatory minimum" sentencing rules have affected generations.

But everything he did to make the film was not enough. To encourage reform of what he calls "draconian" drug laws under which nonviolent offenders receive decades-long or even life sentences, he took his film on the road, screening it for public officials, nonprofit groups and churches. He learned to mobilize, he said, through his experience with his last Sundance Grand Jury prize-winner, "Why We Fight," a 2005 documentary that detailed the effect of American military policy through the decades.

"I learned firsthand that making a film and hoping it will lead to meaningful discussion is insufficient," Jarecki said. "You really have to use it and deploy it. … You have to work in concert with grass-roots groups and existing government entities to do the heavy lifting."

Jarecki already has screened the film in many California cities. Sen. Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, spoke on a panel after a San Francisco screening.

"It tells a very dark tale of the great damage that has been done to communities … as a result of a multi- billion-dollar war on drugs, which many believe has been a failed effort," Leno said of "House."

Leno recently introduced Senate Bill 649, which would give district attorneys more flexibility in charging drug defendants accused of simple possession, or having a small amount of drugs for personal use. Under Leno's bill, district attorneys could choose to charge simple possession of drugs as a misdemeanor instead of the now-mandatory felony count.

(Simple possession of marijuana is an infraction, which counts less than a misdemeanor.)

"There is no data that shows incarceration over longer periods of time lowers drug-rate use," Leno said. "And the Legislative Analyst's Office has calculated that if California charged simple possession as a misdemeanor, the state would save over $160 million a year."

When Jarecki addresses the Legislature, he will "share what I have learned about the criminal justice system," he said. "I traveled to 25 states and have seen its dysfunction up close and personal."

Jarecki also emphasizes, when he talks to lawmakers, that it is "safer to be smart on crime rather than tough on crime," he said.

During most of the war on drugs, "politicians loved to talk tough on crime and used drug laws as a kind of language between themselves and the public that was meant to get them elected and keep them elected," Jarecki said. But public opinion has shifted. The drug war has lasted so long that it has affected many people personally.

"We have spent $1 trillion (on the drug war), and the result is America is the leading jailer in on Earth, yet we have unchecked levels of demand (for drugs). The drugs themselves are cheaper, purer. … The trial period has gone on long enough."

Californians last year showed a desire for reform by approving Proposition 36, which softened the "three-strikes" law. In place since 1994, the three-strikes law demanded that any person with two serious or violent felony convictions gets 25 years to life in prison for a third felony, regardless of that crime's severity. After Proposition 36, third felonies must be serious or violent (in most instances) to qualify as a third strike.

Jarecki screened his film as part of efforts to pass Proposition 36. It marks a success for the drug-law reform movement "in the fairness and justice implication that many people support," Jarecki said.

Imprisoning fewer people also "will save the state a minimum of $100 million per year," he said.

Drug-law reform, Jarecki said, has drawn support from prominent Republicans, including New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and former Secretary of State James Baker.

"They look at it as a grotesque, bloated federal program," Jarecki said.

He also showed his film as part of the campaigns to pass ultimately successful measures to legalize marijuana in Colorado and Washington state.

"When you legalize marijuana, you immediately decrease the inflow of human beings into the criminal justice system," Jarecki said.

But Jarecki warned that laws legalizing drugs can be problematic because those laws "can be abused and controversial, because people will game any system."

The new laws count as victories only if they become part of a larger "wholesale reform of the drug war, based on science and medicine and actual experience" and drug-treatment alternatives to incarceration, he said.

Drug reform advocates won at the federal level in 2010, when the longtime "100-to-1" crack cocaine to powder cocaine sentencing rule was reduced to an 18-to-1 ratio.

Introduced during the 1980s crack epidemic, the 100-to-1 law treated 5 grams of crack cocaine the same as 500 grams of powder cocaine. Opponents argued it was racist, since most crack defendants were African American.

"The law was changed to an 18-to-1 disparity. Why just 18 to 1? Why not 1 to 1? But it is a small measure of progress," Jarecki said.

Jarecki, 43, grew up in a socially conscious East Coast family whose Jewish ancestors immigrated to the United States after being persecuted elsewhere.

"A lot of Jews who had that American experience came to see the black American experience as a sister struggle for rights and dignity," he said.

"House I Live In" began as an exploration of the impediments to the "serious and meaningful progress for black America" he had envisioned growing up in the 1970s, in the wake of the civil rights movement.

Over the years he gradually came to the conclusion that the war on drugs was the primary obstruction to that progress.

Jarecki expanded his reach to include people from all walks of life affected by the drug war, including a judge and a correctional officer frustrated by sentencing laws and prison overpopulation.

The movie "did well at Sundance because it is a well-made movie," said Glenn Backes, a Sacramento public policy analyst who works with the Drug Policy Alliance, a national nonprofit that has sponsored screenings of "House" in other cities.

Most impressive, though, are the many voices in agreement in the film, Backes said.

"I think (Jarecki) did an amazing job of not just talking to families of the incarcerated, but talking to law enforcement officers and a prison guard, and finding unanimous opinion across these groups that the drug war is expensive, failed and racist."

America's drug issues run so deep that solving them seems impossible. But Jarecki said that should not preclude attempts to fix them.

"We once dragged women by their hair, we once thought it was OK to mistreat gay people. There are revolutionary changes that come now and then. The war on drugs also has had a monumental impact. It is no less significant."


The documentary about America's war on drugs airs at 10 p.m. Monday on KVIE (Channel 6).

There will be a special lawmaker screening of the film at 6 p.m. Monday at the Crest Theatre, 1013 K St., Sacramento. The public can attend for free by signing up for tickets at 5973542025.

The Crest will show the film again on April 12 and 14. Admission then is $9.50, $6 matinee.

Editor's note: This story was changed April 5 to correct Eugene Jarecki's quote: "I learned firsthand that making a film and hoping it will lead to meaningful discussion is insufficient. You really have to use it and deploy it. … You have to work in concert with grass-roots groups and existing government entities to do the heavy lifting."

Call The Bee's Carla Meyer, (916) 321-1118.. Follow her on Twitter @CarlaMeyerSB.

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