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The Aftermath of the Failed War on Drugs and Steps to Recovery With The Founder of Root and Rebound

This week we interviewed Katherine Katcher, the founder of Root and Rebound, an organization dedicated to helping those impacted by our criminal justice system. Katherine led us through a myriad of important subjects related to the War on Drugs including the history, where we stand now, data points, solutions big and small, and beyond.

Tell us About Yourself and What Inspired you to Found an Organization Like Root and Rebound?

I am a lawyer by training. When I was in law school, I conceived of, and started planning to build this organization, Root and Rebound, which now works statewide in California and has growing national programs. I had a bit of a unique entrepreneurial spirit when I started law school knowing that I wanted to do something in the nonprofit sector and found an organization that would fill a gap and a need.

For me, the issues that we work on are both things that I do because of personal and professional reasons. Personally, I grew up with Jewish ancestry on all sides. My family came over to this country at the turn of the 19th century, to escape killing, persecution, and oppression that they lived with for hundreds of years in Eastern Europe. They started over in this country where they had nothing, but didn’t face the same level of discrimination that they did in Europe and had more opportunities.

It’s kind of in my blood to understand the way that government and society can create or not create barriers for people solely based on their ethnicity, race, or skin color and the importance of having a free and open society where people can flourish. With that understanding of my own background, as I grew up, I started to look around me.

I was raised in Miami, Florida, and understood that being Jewish in this country and being white allowed me to fulfill a lot of what the American dream was. Coming over, we were working in factories, and on farms as children, then having generations that were able to go to high school, to go to college, to go to law school, and then to start their own businesses. That’s because society allows for that, and much of that is based around race. I don’t believe that anyone is self-made. I think that it takes a lot of work, but also it takes a society that allows that person to flourish.

When I looked at immigrant communities, specifically in Miami where I grew up, and also as an older adult I started to understand the black experience in this country. To really understand that there are so many communities, families, and individuals who have suffered as a result of significant racism and oppression on behalf of the government.

For me, the criminal justice system is the pinnacle of that. Through the War on Drugs, the war on crime, our government targeted communities of color, poor communities of color that had the least means and went after them with mandatory minimum sentencing. Locking away people added to the existing issues that stemmed out of slavery and Jim Crow in this country. This is decades – 40 years – of the war on drugs and mass incarceration. It is built upon the history in this country of white supremacy.

Our criminal justice system is failing us with our education system, our healthcare system, our social services system, these are all intertwined. The war on drugs is ending or has ended, right? We realized that it was an epic failure. It didn’t work. Yet all these folks in black and brown communities, now their children and their grandchildren have suffered. Many of them have gone into incarceration themselves. Where can we cut things off?

So we’re set up as attorneys to work on the barriers that people face when they have a criminal record and been involved to say, ‘where does this end’? ‘How do we stop people from continuing to cycle through incarceration and poverty’? And, ‘how can lawyers be a part of that’?

Expand on that just a little bit, about the history of the war on drugs and where we stand now?
It’s something that’s evolving. We are in a unique political climate where mixed things are happening. One big plug I would make is, there’s a great book called “The New Jim Crow” by Michelle Alexander. The book has so much significant data about the war on drugs starting with President Nixon, and then Reagan, and the buildup that happened in the 80s and 90s. So, that’s a great resource I would recommend.

Another is the Drug Policy Alliance, which is an organization that does a lot of research. Jay Z did a video for them that takes like four minutes to watch. It makes the ties between the war on drugs and the black and brown communities.

To Bring it Back to The History: In the 1970s, Nixon declared a war on drugs. That dramatically increased the size and presence of Federal Drug Control agencies. He pushed through measures like mandatory minimum and no-knock warrants, and then similar laws were enacted in states across the country. The states kind of mimic the federal government and there was this chaos and panic created in the 70s and 80s that all of these social problems – all these public health issues like poverty, violence, urban issues, rural issues – were caused by drugs.

That’s coded language for, essentially, young black men on street corners selling drugs. The data shows us that white people do drugs just as much, if not more than people of color and also sell drugs just as much, if not more than people of color. But The War on Drugs turned into a way for our government to go in and basically clean streets and lock people up for many, many years and even decades for nonviolent drug-related crimes.

Our country in about a 40-year period goes just balloons in terms of our prison population going from about two hundred thousand in 1972 to over a million in 2000. In California, we went from having 12 state prisons in the 1970s to 35 in that short amount of time. And again, the laws that were enacted did not impact all people equally. I want to be really clear that people of color are not more likely to use or sell illegal drugs than whites. The way that we criminalize drugs, the way that we sentence people, the way that we prosecute, the way that we incarcerate, it has a hugely disproportionate impact on communities of color. So, there were/are disparities in arrests and in prosecutions and sentencing and in depth.

For example, a study that was done in 1998 shows that African American drug users made up 35% of drug arrests, 55% of convictions, and 74% of people sent to prison for drug crimes. They make up 35% of arrest, but 74% of the people were actually sent to prison. Even just sitting with that and understanding that, that means that a lot of non-African American folks were not sent to prison. Once they’re arrested, they didn’t end up in prison, right? That’s a massive difference in those stats.

We know that African Americans were sent to state prisons for drug offenses 13 times more often than other races, even though they’re only comprising 13% of regular drug users. And when you look at statistics around the Latino population in this country and Native American communities, you see very similar statistics.

Another great website that I love is The Sentencing Project. These are research-based institutions that have data. We don’t have enough useful data. We do things out of panic, fear, and discrimination, rather than reality. And you ask the question of ‘is this over’? And of course, in many ways it is, and in many, it isn’t. We have the data now, and there are powerful organizations (I hope Root and Rebound being one of them), influential civil rights organizations that have grown over time to combat these issues to say this isn’t working, this is a harming communities, harming communities of color.

You talked a bit About Data and How Important it is to Understanding The War on Drugs, Can you Expand on That?

The data that’s been developed to show the discrepancy between use, and selling, and who actually goes to prison – has demonstrated that racism is at the heart and core of this criminal justice system. This needs to change. We need to show that imprisonment doesn’t work and community-based alternatives are what we need to be focusing on. Good data is everything in this field. Otherwise, it’s people working out of panic, emotion, and stereotype, and that’s not a good thing.

Right now, we’re at an interesting place in criminal justice reform because you basically have a bipartisan movement on the right, and then you have red and libertarian states, where for economic reasons governments are decreasing the numbers of people in prison in jail. Economically, it’s a total drain and waste of money, and it’s a harmful impact on that person’s life and their family’s life to incarcerate them. So for economic reasons, you have republicans and libertarians that are both really backing criminal justice reform.

President Trump, in January, passed something called the First Step Act, which was federal criminal justice reform. Under this administration, many people would not think that something like that would happen. It did because again, there is bipartisan support. On the left, of course, people now realize that if we’re going to have a sort of civil rights and human rights movement, that people who are impacted by mass incarceration needs to be a part of that. And in fact, if we’re focusing on poverty and racial justice, that they should absolutely be a part of that.

So in some ways, I think the work is only beginning. In some ways, there are definitely strides that have been made. In California, we’ve had numerous reforms in the last 10 years to reduce the number of people who are inside for drug-related crimes, reducing felonies to misdemeanors, letting people clear their record.

Only in 2013 did we get rid of the felony drug ban in this state. The ban exists in many states and says that if you have a felony drug conviction, you are not eligible for food stamps when you got out of prison, which means you can’t feed your family. So, we just got rid of that draconian law in California.

Fewer people are now going into prison, and we have more diversion. We’re recognizing what common sense will tell you that, draconian, punitive, prison environments don’t heal people, they harm them further, and they take them away from their families, and they lead to more poverty and more marginalization in these communities. That’s common sense, and I guess we needed to see that for people to really understand it didn’t work.

We have that realization now as a country, but what we’re living with is families and communities that have been devastated by the war on drugs that are currently living with its after-effects, and that’s what we really choose to focus on here at root and rebound.

With the legal cannabis industry, do you think people have forgotten that this is an issue? Do you think people still care enough to make a difference?

I think so much of that is dependent on us, right? I’m in my 30s, and I can imagine that teenagers that are growing up in this environment might not appreciate or understand those discrepancies, especially in communities that were not impacted by the war on drugs. I think for those of us that are raising children, are involved in school or teaching young people, it’s essential that we bring this history into the history that we teach.

I think in other communities, of course, the communities that were devastated by these issues, they absolutely know. And many of them still don’t feel free to sit on a stoop and smoke a blunt even if it’s legal, it could be cause for a cop to come over and start bothering them.

I think we live in a community and in a society where based on people’s skin color, they have very different interactions with weed, and with other drugs, and different comfort levels with legalization. I’ll also say that one of the major issues with legalization is that people who have felony convictions for possession, for selling or for intent and sell are not able to be involved in the legal cannabis industry, in most states.

It’s very prevalent in certain communities that, wow, this legalization really didn’t benefit us. It benefited the folks that were not impacted by mass incarceration. During the drug war, there was a 100 to 1 ratio of sentencing for crack cocaine versus powder cocaine, even though they’re the same drug. So, you have white wall street bankers sitting in their offices doing powder cocaine, and even also sometimes crack. It’s actually sort of a wrong premise that it wasn’t a white drug. It’s like a total misconception. But anyhow, first of all, the cops weren’t standing outside their door. But if they did get picked up for cocaine, they had a sentencing rate of 1 to 100 for crack cocaine vs. people of color.

Even though one is not more addictive, one is not worse for you, it was about the elite versus the poor. I think the communities that have always suffered in this country that have long been persecuted by our government through first slavery, then Jim Crow, then incarceration, and now immigration laws; I think people in those communities experience a different America than I as a white person do.

This goes back to why do I do this work? For me, this is about racial justice and equity. It’s about saying like you’re here and you belong. And just because you have a felony doesn’t mean you are dismissed and shouldn’t get thrown away like trash. That is not an okay way for us to be treating folks.

I hope that by listening to a podcast like this, my goal is not to induce guilt on people who are sitting on a stoop smoking a blunt. That is part of what should be a free and open society. My goal is to increase awareness and actually lead a call to action to say, what can we do about this?

Guilt is not a useful emotion. Awareness, being more conscious, giving back, and thinking about, okay, maybe men and women of color who have records might not be able to own their own cannabis companies in my state, how do I expand more job opportunities for them if they can’t own their own business? How do I make sure that I’m a part of rallies and political efforts to increase the rights of people with felony records to vote, to have family reunification, to have access to housing and food stamps? I don’t think it’s an either or, I actually think we need to work with each other, and come together, and realize that the rights that we enjoy the freedoms we enjoy should be freedoms that everyone enjoys.

It Reminds Me of something that Chaz more of the Austin Justice Coalition said at SXSW about how it’s not black and brown people, it’s not people that have been affected by the war on drugs that need to fight this fight. It’s the privileged white folks and people that benefited from The War on Drugs that need to step up. – Can you comment on that?

Absolutely. I think we all have a role to play. Even if you didn’t go to law school like me, that doesn’t mean you can’t get involved, right? There’s not a certain degree or background or requirement that you need. Every voice matters and I think people are also still uncomfortable in this country talking about race. That’s something I hope we can also move towards, not away from. I think that’s so important to realize our history of the country.

The privileges that we have every day that people don’t have because they look different. The familial history and understanding of what it means to grow up black in America. The fact that my parents never had to sit down with me and have ‘the talk.’ Every black kid will tell you they know what ‘the talk’ is. You sit down with your kid at a certain age and tell them, ‘look, you’re black, and because you’re black, you need to act a certain way, you need to drive a certain way, you need to talk a certain way.’

Just because white kids can sit outside at a party when they’re 16 and drink and smoke doesn’t mean you can. That’s really sad to me that that happened. It’s even more disturbing to me that I didn’t know until I was 33 years old that was a talk that almost every black kid had. I wish I had known that. Because as a teenager, I would have been more supportive of my friends of color. I think there’s like a bit of a bubble that we all live in, and I’m still like unraveling the onion of the privileges that I have and learning so much from others.

I absolutely think you’re right. We want to listen to those voices (of the affected), and we want those voices to inform at the forefront of the movement for more freedom and equality in this country, and ending the impact of the war on drugs and mass incarceration. But that doesn’t mean that we white people stay home. It means we listen. We absorb, we learn, we get proximate to the issue, and then we figure out where are we going to be supportive and helpful, and our value add.

That leads us to solutions. What is Root and Rebound doing and what could an individual do to help?
I really hope that people come away from this feeling inspired. You can always go to my website and email me, I’m always happy to talk to folks about how they can get more involved. We have volunteers and people who support us from every single type of background and skill set.

More broadly, at Root and Rebound our model is one that is multifaceted. These are incredibly complicated problems, and there’s not a silver bullet that is going to solve all of this. We’ve developed what we believe is a powerful, multifaceted solution to working on some of these issues.

We work on policy reform. Changing the laws that continue to perpetuate mass incarceration, but also the consequences of mass incarceration. One in three Americans has a criminal record. That’s 70 to 100 million Americans with some form of a criminal record. And again, the majority of those folks are disproportionately people of color.

What that has created is a ceiling where there’s a prevention of getting certain jobs, getting into housing, getting reunified with children, and those are the areas where we want to be working. We want to end this idea that when you have a felony, you have no place in society. For us that’s just a proxy for poor people of color don’t have a place here and that’s not okay.

We work through policy and changing these broken laws through public education and creating resources that democratize, especially for people who’ve been impacted or who are incarcerated. Know your rights. How do I stay unified with my children? How do I stop child support from amounting? What about traffic fines and fees? When I’m getting out of prison, where can I apply for housing? Am I not able to be in any kind of public housing? No. And so how does that work? Employment discrimination, what do I do if I feel like someone has violated my employment rights?

Parole and probation are a whole other form of mass criminalization. Millions of Americans are living under parole and probation supervision now because they got out of prison. They now have years where they’re being watched which can lead to all kinds of vulnerabilities and issues. Our recidivism rate is about 70% in this country, and nearly half of that is for technical violations, not new crime. Meaning minor mistakes that people make that are not criminal, but they lead back to incarceration because they’ve messed up on parole and probation. Showing up late to a meeting, giving a meeting, passing a curfew, using substances, that can all lead to re-incarceration.

The policy work, the education work, the know your rights work, and the direct service work. Right now in California, we have offices in the Bay Area and Oakland in Fresno Central Valley, which serves formerly incarcerated women of color, and then in Los Angeles at a group called the anti-recidivism coalition. And as I said, we’re also expanding into South Carolina this year to have our first sister site in the south.

On an individual level, we work with people holistically across 11 areas of law and life to understand what their goals are, what their needs are, and where we can help them navigate and overcome barriers that they face because of their record. We fight for people to get education and to stay in school, employment, housing. We’re on the ground fighting for these issues when it comes to women,

As our Raffle is for Mothers Day, Can you Talk a little bit about Women’s Issues in Your Work?

I know that the focus of this work and the podcast is really to celebrate Mother’s Day and to focus on incarcerated and formerly incarcerated women. Women’s issues are unique, and we’re fortunate to have this excellent new office in the central valley that is exclusively focused on women.

For most women, when they get out, their number one question is, ‘where are my kids and how do I reunify with them’? To do that, they need housing, and they need jobs, and so there’s a lot of work that goes into that. We have a lawyer, a social worker, and an employment coach working holistically with about 30 women in the Central Valley. Central Valley is a challenging climate to be in, very conservative part of our state that has less opportunity.

We’re really digging in deep with these women to make sure that they have the stabilization and support they need to move forward with their lives, to reunify with those kids. We know those kids statistically, again, looking at data are far more likely to end up in prison if they don’t have a parent in their life.

We know that parents that want to be involved and want that connection should have zealous advocates in court to advocate for them so that a judge doesn’t just look at their felony on their record and say, Oh, you have a felony. Does it matter? This is completely disconnected from their ability to parent.

Judges all the time in family Court say well, you have a felony, so no, not going to grant you this, not going to give you a visitation. Well, you don’t have housing? I don’t have housing because I have a record and I can’t get housing. So, how are people supposed to succeed, and that’s where we come in. We want to fight those fights with our clients on the ground along with them.

I’d be curious if you have maybe a success story that you would be willing to share?

I definitely have a couple that I wanted to share with you. We had one woman who came to us after being fired from her job at a medical center for having a criminal record. They were actually just criminal charges filed against her. There had been no conviction. Our attorney spoke with the legal counsel at the Medical Center because we informed them that we thought that this was a violation of her rights. The client had tried to clear the charges from her record and had been unsuccessful. But again, we didn’t think this is a valid reason for firing someone who had been working so hard at the Medical Center.

Because of our advocacy, her termination was revoked, and which was a huge win. She was able to go back to work, and at the same time because she came to our office, our women’s Support Manager was able to provide her with one on one counseling and emotional support to give her an outlet to express her anxiety through the process and to assure her that she’d be able to overcome this and other bumps in the journey that she has.

Similarly, we had a client named Ashley, who faced the denial of her teaching credential based on an old low-level misdemeanor. Our office prepared her for a hearing before the licensing board, which is a huge barrier for people who want to enter about 20% of professions in California require a license.

They had been telling her because of this old low-level misdemeanor, she wasn’t going to be eligible. Because we provided her with advice, counsel, support, and representation, she was granted clearance to become a teacher. What’s impressive about her story is that she was unemployed. She was making something like $40 a month, and she’s now making about $4,000 a month and working in a career field that she loves and can now provide stability to her children.

Ashley had this great quote, which I love. She said, “Root and Rebound for me represents a second chance. It represents freedom for me, because I was at a place where I was really broken, I was really hurt, I was feeling really low. I happened to stumble upon Root and Rebound at a hard time when I was trying to get a chance to become a teacher, and I didn’t really think that I could”. Those are some are the stories that motivate us. And again, we take a whole family approach.

We have this office where moms can come in with their kids. We have a whole kids center. We do a lot of group work. The fact that people are formerly incarcerated or have been impacted and are impacted by the war of drugs, for us, it’s like a perk! We’re not like, ‘Oh, you can’t come here, because you have this record.’ It’s actually, ‘you have this record, and we welcome you like we actually want to dig in. We know that the system is broken, we know the system is harmful. We want to support you and your kids’.

I think it’s just such a welcoming approach for women that feel so judged. Especially as mothers, women are judged for, ‘how could you have been incarcerated and be away from your kids.’ But most women didn’t want to or didn’t want to be pregnant and give birth when she was in prison. These are the options they had, and people make mistakes

What’s really interesting now is that we have this opioid epidemic, and it’s impacting a lot of wealthier and more white people. We’re starting to see and talk about that issue as a public health issue. But that’s what these issues always were, and still are, right? If someone is addicted to substances, why don’t we come in and be supportive and provide healing services? Well, that’s a lot harder, and it takes a lot more thought, and effort, and infrastructure than to just put people in cages.

We want to be an alternative to that, and we want to promote that through our in-depth support. People can succeed and become role models in their community. We want to create more and more positive examples through just our little bit of support. These women have what it takes to improve their lives. We’re just there to support them along the way.

How long do you think it would take to heal ourselves from the war on drugs fully?
I mean, in some ways, I feel like it’s not about getting to some place of full healing. I don’t know if that is necessarily possible in this country. Because again, it’s more coming face to face. That would be like coming face to face with colonialism, right? There’s no way to make that right.

The fact that we came into this country and massacred Native Americans, brought in slaves, that’s what our economy and government were built upon. It’s forever going to be the history of this country. The War on Drugs stemmed from Jim Crow, which stemmed from slavery.

I think the war on drugs is part of the history of this country and is something we have to reckon with, along with a lot of other forms of racial and class-based inequality. But I do think we can get better.

I loved your question of, ‘what can people do’? And I think the more informed and honest we are about the inequalities in this country, race, and class-based inequality, the closer we can get to coming up with solutions. It’s having these candid conversations with our loved ones, with our children, with ourselves, at work, that we can start to work towards healing.

I think listening to and putting front and center, what communities and individuals who’ve been impacted by what they say and what they need. I don’t think we’re going to get to some point of perfection, but my goals are to see those stories lifted up, to see those people lifted up, to see more power go into those communities, to see policing, and prosecution, and incarceration done totally differently. Those things, I think we do have an opportunity to do differently and to do better.

Through Our Mothers Day Raffle, we Hope to Support This Cause, I wondered if you could tell people how you plan to use the donation money?

One of the major things that we were really excited about is that through the raffle, there will be a donation that is made specifically to our women’s program. A huge need that we have for those women is often a little bit of financial assistance. When someone loses their job. Those examples I gave you, because of their record, they have no way to pay for groceries or for their rent that month. So we’ve raised funds. Last year, we started to build a cash fund for our women. We plan with them, for example, how much money do you need right now you’re in crisis, and then how do we help you get a job and get more income, but we are going to help you weather the storm.

Or when women come out of prison, they come out with $200 and a bus ticket, and that’s it. That’s only going to go so far. And we know that there’s more support that’s needed to help people get housing, get employment, get showers, get food. And so our financial assistance is a considerable part of just basic stabilization and support. The women have what they need inside of themselves to succeed, but our provision of cash assistance and also a financial wellness plan are super critical to them exploring, who am I? How do I get stabilized? Where do I go from here and having a moment to breathe and not being in crisis or on the street. And that’s really important to us.

We think our model of providing legal, social, and employment coaching is critical. Then there are just times of crisis where what women need is money not to be homeless. Through our work, we’re able to make sure we find the best shelters or find the best programs and stabilize them quickly, but the cash assistance goes such a long way for women and their children. Again, to stay unified not to get broken up by CBS or to have the mom picked up because she’s on the street and to not go back into illegal work to pay the rent.

There’s just so much adversity that these women face, and there are so many times where people want to give up. And for us, having this cash assistance fund helps people stay on the right path because they know we’re in their corner. They feel our support, they have food in their stomach, and they have a bed to sleep on. Those things are really critical to the stabilization process.

I just want to say thank you so much for what you’re doing. It’s so important. If people want to look up root and rebound, it’s just rootandrebound.org. For links to the raffle, you’ll be able to find that here. Katherine, any final words?

I just want to say, thank you so much for having me. Thank you for caring about this issue and for making the connection between the work you do and the history of the war on drugs, and the importance of moving forward, but also looking back and thinking about how we can do both as a society.

It’s really inspiring to have your voice as part of the larger sort of cannabis legalization movement. I really appreciate that you took the time to talk to us today. And thank you all for donating to the raffle. Thank you all for your support. It goes a long way for women. That means so much to us.

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