Documentary explores the human tragedy of the war on drugs

Perhaps you’ve heard of it—the war on drugs…

Back in the 1970s, then-President Richard Nixon declared drug abuse “public enemy number one.” It was around that time that the phrase “war on drugs” became popular. And today, while we battle an invisible enemy and declared war on a virus, such hyperbole resonates still. If only saying the words would somehow make a difference.

Even though legislators routinely pay lip service to the concept of rehabilitation and treatment programs, US policy has always led with interdiction and incarceration. Mandatory jail sentences are the norm. In the sad shadow of basketball phenom Len Bias’ death by overdose, President Ronald Reagan signed the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986, which singled out crack cocaine. The disproportionate effect on certain racial minority groups was undeniable.

Laws can be passed in error.

Edward Douglas with Senator Cory Booker.

The 1986 Act started with 5-year mandatory sentences, but it was the 1994 Crime Bill, signed by President Bill Clinton and supported by then-Senator Joe Biden, that cemented “three strikes and you’re out.” With this law, prosecutors had a powerful tool to encourage, some say force, criminal defendants to enter pleas to charges instead of going to trial.

It is on this backdrop that filmmaker Nicole Jones trains her cameras on several men given life sentences for non-violent offenses merely because they previously had minor drug convictions. Early in the film, Jones introduces us to some of her subjects, who completed probation for prior offenses.

While it’s not a terribly important distinction, note that Jones’ text animations indicate that, after successfully completing probation, the prior cases were “dismissed.” This isn’t usually what happens; instead, the probation files are closed, leaving behind the conviction on one’s criminal record forever. It is because of one’s criminal history that draconian mandatory life sentences are handed down by judges, who have little or no discretion in the sentencing matter.

Pioneering attorney MiAngel Cody.

Jones also introduces us to the families of the incarcerated men. We meet intelligent young women, who grew up only knowing their fathers from a prison cell. What is remarkable is how these women have channeled this experience into a force for change. Only by understanding the problem from the inside out, these dedicated crusaders affect positive change.

“The Third Strike” also profiles attorney MiAngel Cody, one of the founders of The Decarceration Collective. This organization has been instrumental in gaining the early release of men trapped by excessive sentences. Ultimately, their efforts helped lead to the passage of The First Step Act in 2019. Yes, this is the law signed by President Donald J. Trump after consulting with Kim Kardashian West.

But as much as the intricate solution to the sentencing problem involves both issues of law and politics, Jones’ film shines brightest when she devotes time to focus on the human tragedy. At one point, Alton Mills, a man who served 22 years in prison and whose sentence was commuted in 2015, tearfully talks about how his crimes betrayed his upbringing. He has sincere regret, and his pain is palpable.

There’s still time to reunite families separated by excessive sentences.

Edward Douglas, the first man released after the passage of The First Step Act, talks about getting a second chance. He was not able to have an active role in his daughter’s upbringing, but he now has a positive place in the lives of his grandchildren. I thought about the men that may either still be inside or those men that died inside and never had Douglas’ opportunity. The time for change is at hand.

A humbly made documentary, Jones’ adopts a very intimate visual scope. At times, the tone is akin to a reality program, as we see the subjects dancing, singing, and participating in normal life activities. They express their instant emotions as the cameras roll. It certainly helps to put a human face on the problem, but this approach might distract some viewers from the underlying facts and procedures involved. That mechanical narrative can be explored in another film that details ways to unwind the 1994 Crime Bill.

“The Third Strike” is about non-violent drug offenders sentenced to life behind bars. It’s also about the toll the misguided and misapplied sentences have on families. It powerfully makes the argument in favor of physically reuniting these damaged souls. And it’s a reunion worth watching.