Mothers of Nonviolent Drug Offenders Showcase Empty Seats at Thanksgiving

As families across Southern California prepare for a day of feasting, a global group of activist mothers is using the Thanksgiving holiday to bring attention to "devastation caused by punitive prohibitionist drug policies," according to a statement.

The worldwide group Moms United to End the War on Drugs as well as Southern California's A New PATH (Parents for Addiction Treatment and Healing) are reminding folks that there's often an empty seat at the Thanksgiving table as a result of drug-related incarceration and other narcotics-related maladies. Participants plan to capture photos of their empty seats, which will be adorned with signs that say "incarceration," "accidental overdose" or "drug war violence," to bring attention to their plight.

Gretchen Burns Bergman, executive director of A New PATH, says she has two sons who have struggled with heroin addiction. "Many years one of my sons wasn't at the table because he was behind bars for nonviolent drug offenses," she says.

"This is an opportunity to speak out about this very misunderstood disorder and about the need to handle it in a therapeutic and compassionate way rather than with incarceration," she says. "What we hope to accomplish is awareness."

Bergman's organizations — she's also involved with Moms United to End the War on Drugs — support justice reform in the Golden State and across the nation that would result in fewer people behind bars for personal, nonviolent drug crimes.

The justice reform movement in California is in the midst of defending Proposition 47, which reduces certain drug, petty theft, stolen property and bad-check felonies to misdemeanors, against a proposed statewide initiative that seeks to roll it back. "We will fight to preserve 47," Bergman says.

"It's terrible for people to go through their lives with felonies on their records because they're nonviolent drug offenders," she says.

Justice reform activists also generally support state legislation that would base release for suspects on pretrial assessments regarding their proclivity to flee rather than on their ability to cover bail. The goal is to get otherwise productive people working and save taxpayers millions of dollars.

"It is imperative that California leaders commit to further reducing state incarceration and prison spending to finally achieve a balanced approach to public safety," Lenore Anderson, executive director of Californians for Safety and Justice, said via email. "By continuing to right-size the state’s incarceration rate and substantially reduce the amount of money we spend on prisons, we will be able to invest in new safety solutions that more effectively support people vulnerable to crime, prevent crime from occurring in the first place and stop the cycle from continuing."

Bergman says one of her sons ended up behind bars based on a marijuana case, and that he learned how to inject heroin while incarcerated. He subsequently returned to prison due to probation technicalities, such as failing drug tests, she says.

"You get trained to be a criminal behind bars," she says. "We need to end the war on drugs. It's a war waged on our own families."

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