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, April 11, 2009


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 effort.

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 this year."

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 collapse.

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 Stone:

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

Home Page