Can Senator Webb Lead America
Out of the Drug War Quagmire?
Webb Faces Up to the U.S. Incarceration
Machine, Seeks to Rethink the War on Drugs
by Kevin Zeese
More than 1 in 100 adults in the United
States are now behind bars. 1 in 31 are in prison, probation or
parole. The U.S. with 5% of the world's population now has 25%
of the world's prisoners. Incarceration of drug offenders has
risen 1,200% since 1980 from 41,000 to 500,000. The appetite of
the American prison machine is voracious. Each year 7 million
Americans are jailed and approximately 700,000 go on to serve
prison sentences. When a racial prism is added to these numbers
the stark reality of racial unfairness is impossible to deny.
And now women and girls are the fastest growing group of prisoners.
Senator Jim Webb of Virginia looks at
these numbers and in a speech on the Senate floor wondered out
loud: "Either we have the most evil people on Earth living
in the United States, or we are doing something dramatically wrong."
He has introduced a bill, which already has 19 co-sponsors including
Republicans and Democrats (including the top three Republicans
on the Judiciary Committee), that will answer that question. It
sets up a national commission, the National Criminal Justice Commission,
which will look at ways to reduce the prison population including
rethinking drug policy. The chairman will be appointed by President
Barack Obama who reportedly has called Webb twice to commend this
When Webb ran for the U.S. senate he raised
the need for criminal justice reform during the campaign. Many
told him it was a third rail of politics that would make his already
improbable election impossible. But, Webb surprised the country
and turned red state Virginia blue. At a meeting this week in
Washington, DC attended by 70 advocates for criminal justice and
drug policy reform his staff told us that this issue is a "passion
for Senator Webb" that is of "deep importance"
and that he has been concerned about "for decades."
Webb's goal, they told us, was to see this bill "enacted
Webb sees the hypocrisy of U.S. drug laws.
He notes that more than half of Americans aged 12 and over have
used an illegal drug and wonders "In talking of legality
and illegality, what does that do to the fiber of our society?"
He goes on to note that "I saw more drug use at Georgetown
Law School than anywhere else I've been. A lot of those people
went on to be judges."
Indeed, the last three U.S. presidents
have a history of drug use - Clinton admitted putting a marijuana
joint to his lips, but to the nation's snickering claimed he did
not inhale; Bush reportedly was a cocaine user during his alcohol
abuse days but refused to discuss it; and now Barack Obama has
acknowledged his past use of marijuana and cocaine. Three presidents
who join most of America in having used an illegal drug but who
all escaped the clutches of the drug war. Would America have wanted
each imprisoned? Their lives ruined?
And, Senator Webb is well aware of the
racially disproportionate impact of the drug laws. This March
26th, in a Senate speech when he introduced his bill he emphasized:
"African-Americans are about 12% of our population; contrary
to a lot of thought and rhetoric, their drug use rate in terms
of frequent drug use rate is about the same as all elements in
our society about 14%. But they end up being 37% of those arrested
on drug charges, 59% of those convicted, and 74% of those sentenced
to prison." What does that do to the African American family?
What does it do to employment, income and wealth creation? Is
it possible to become a post-racial society without facing the
issue of racial unfairness in the justice system?
Webb's commission would not tinker at
the edges of the drug war, a quagmire America has been trapped
in since President Nixon declared it, he is seeking fundamental
paradigm shifting change, not incremental change. As Webb says
"America's criminal justice system has deteriorated to the
point that it is a national disgrace" and "we are locking
up too many people who do not belong in jail."
And, Webb is not shy about discussing
what happens in America's prisons. Webb said in his Senate speech:
"We have a situation in this country with respect to prison
violence and sexual victimization that is off the charts and we
must get our arms around this problem. We also have many people
in our prisons who are among what are called the criminally ill,
many suffering from hepatitis and HIV who are not getting the
sorts of treatment they deserve." Indeed, 60,500 prison inmates
reported sexual assaults and that are estimated to under-reported
by approximately ten fold.
He talks about "warehousing"
the mentally ill, 350,000 people incarcerated with mental illness
with no professional treatment, and notes there are four times
as many mentally ill people in prison than in mental hospitals.
The Marion Correctional Treatment Center reports the cost of housing
each mentally ill inmate at $77,561.
Many Americans might remember that some
of the soldiers involved in the Abu Ghraib prison scandal had
worked in the U.S. prison system before joining the military.
At the meeting with Webb staffers some families of prisoners described
how they are charged $20 for a $15 telephone call with their loved
one because the prison makes a commission on the calls. Another
woman from Louisiana described how her son was sexually assaulted
in prison by a guard and then put in solitary confinement until
he agreed to withdraw the charges. Every day in America prisoners
are being abused and with 2.4 million behind bars there are millions
of family members hearing the stories and telling their friends.
The American prison scandal is more widely understood than politicians
and prison guards realize.
For too long Americans have thought nothing
can be done about ending the drug war - even though most see its
obvious failure. We are trained to believe that things can't change.
But this has always been the case: Slavery can't end, women can't
vote, child labor is essential, the forty hour work week is unrealistic,
gays can't marry, Jim Crow will always be the law, alcohol prohibition
can't end. History is proof that even the most seemingly unchangeable
can in fact change radically. The drug war's failure is hard to
dispute with a straight face it is so evident, and finally there
seems to be a senator who takes drugs seriously.
But, Senator Webb has a long way to go
and he will not get there without a lot of people speaking up
and demanding change. Senator Webb needs individuals and organizations
to write his office and express support. He needs people to write
their elected officials and tell them to support Webb's commission.
We need to bring in mainstream American organizations like churches,
temples and mosques, civic clubs, fraternities and sororities,
business clubs the fact is all of us are adversely affected by
the expensive horror of mass incarceration. Indeed, the basic
American ideal of being the "land of the free" is undermined
by over-incarceration in America's abusive prisons.
Now is the time. The economic collapse
is forcing city, state and federal governments to look at their
expenditures. The prison budget deserves special focus. States
spend $44 billion annually on prisons. In almost all states after
education and health care, prisons are the biggest budget line
item. Forty states have cut vital services during this economic
If the U.S. put in place a sensible prison
policy - where those who we fear are the only ones locked up,
not the addicted, the drug users, the mentally ill or non-violent
- the prison population would be closer to 500,000 people rather
than 2.4 million. Immediately states would see a significant fiscal
savings at a time when they are desperate for reducing expenditures.
Across the country reforms are being seen at the state level,
a boost from a national commission could create the momentum needed
for the paradigm shift that is needed.
Senator Webb may have a president in the
White House who will take reform of prison and drug policy seriously.
During the presidential campaign President Obama told Rolling
Anybody who sees the devastating impact
of the drug trade in the inner cities, or the methamphetamine
trade in rural communities, knows that this is a huge problem.
I believe in shifting the paradigm, shifting the model, so that
we focus more on a public-health approach. I can say this as an
ex-smoker: We've made enormous progress in making smoking socially
unacceptable. You think about auto safety and the huge success
we've had in getting people to fasten their seat belts.
The point is that if we're putting more
money into education, into treatment, into prevention and reducing
the demand side, then the ways that we operate on the criminal
side can shift. I would start with nonviolent, first-time drug
offenders. The notion that we are imposing felonies on them or
sending them to prison, where they are getting advanced degrees
in criminality, instead of thinking about ways like drug courts
that can get them back on track in their lives - it's expensive,
it's counterproductive, and it doesn't make sense.
Obama was right - it just doesn't make
sense. Now is the time for all who see these realities to get
educated, organized and active.
Kevin Zeese is director of Democracy Rising
and co-founder of Voters For Peace
War on Drugs