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The War Against the 'War on Drugs' | The Nation

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The War Against the 'War on Drugs'

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Over the past three decades, California has tripled the number of prisons it operates, has more than quintupled its prison population and has gone from spending $5 on higher education for every dollar it spent on corrections to a virtual dead-heat in spending. That puts it in the same boat as Michigan, Vermont, Oregon, Connecticut and Delaware--all of which, according to estimates by the Pew Charitable Trust, spend as much or more on prisons than on colleges. California is also under federal court order to implement costly improvements in the delivery of medical and mental healthcare services in prisons and to release close to a third of the prison population--about 55,000 inmates--to improve conditions for those remaining behind bars.

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Sasha Abramsky
Sasha Abramsky, who writes regularly for The Nation, is the author of several books, including Inside Obama’s...

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Schwarzenegger adamantly opposed that ruling by a three-judge panel. Now, though, in the face of fiscal calamity, he is proposing cutting the prison population by tens of thousands. Of course, he is doing that not out of concern for inmates' well-being, or out of a sense that many sentences are disproportionate to the crime, but simply because the state can no longer pay its bills. Schwarzenegger believes he can save several hundred million dollars by releasing some categories of inmates, in particular nonviolent offenders who are in the country illegally and stand to be deported upon early release.

To save money, he's also talking about firing hard-working guards (a far better, but costlier, option would be to scale back the prison system and to retrain surplus guards to work in other venues), and he's asking for close to $1 billion in cuts to vital prison drug-treatment, education and job-training services. At the same time, since this is all about shaving dollars off budgets rather than intelligent criminal justice system reform, there's no talk of investing in crucial re-entry infrastructure.

In short, it looks like California will go about a necessary scaling back of the correctional system exactly the wrong way. But however grudgingly state officials are approaching the issue, at least they recognize that the magnitude of prison spending is a problem. Down the road, when Californians start thinking beyond the crisis moment, that new understanding will shape policy responses for years to come. It will both feed off and help create a new national sentiment that being "tough on crime" isn't necessarily being smart on crime.

Tough-on-crime rhetoric, and the policies and institutions that grow from it, emerged from Nixon's Silent Majority tactics, from his recasting of politics as a series of debates around "values" rather than bread-and-butter issues. And in the same way the 2008 presidential election ended that peculiar chapter in American history, so too did it end the monotone cry that we could incarcerate our way out of deep-rooted social and economic problems. Despite a few halfhearted GOP attempts to accuse Democrats of being weak on drugs and public safety--Obama had, after all, written about his drug use during his teenage and early adult years, which, according to the old calculus, should have made him an easy target for scaremongers--neither presidential candidate played the tough-on-crime card. It was a nonissue for most voters and thus for the candidates. In fact, recent Zogby polling commissioned by the National Council on Crime and Delinquency suggests that close to eight in ten Americans favor alternatives to incarceration for low-level nonviolent offenders. Another Zogby poll, from last fall, found that just more than three-quarters of Americans felt the "war on drugs" was a failure. The sea change in public opinion holds in California too. In late March the Los Angeles Times ran a column asking readers their opinion on marijuana legalization. So far 4,927 people have replied, and 94 percent of them favor legalization. A Field Poll in April found that 56 percent of Californians favor legalizing and taxing pot.

The new atmosphere is most apparent vis-à-vis the Obama administration's move away from "war on drugs" rhetoric and toward a harm-reduction strategy. Gil Kerlikowske, the new head of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, has made it clear that he prefers treatment over punishment for drug users, a preference he brings from his time as a reform-oriented police chief in Seattle. Putting money where its mouth is, the new team has increased funding for the Bush-era Second Chance Act, intended to connect released inmates with community services such as housing, family counseling and addiction treatment. Support is also growing for the creation of more drug and mental health courts across the country. Finally, there are the promises being made by drug policy leaders in Washington that state medical marijuana laws will be respected rather than trampled, as they have been for more than a decade.

A related issue involves the infamous discrepancy in sentences for crack- versus powder-cocaine crimes. Vice President Biden was one of the architects of these laws--which is why his repudiation of them in recent years has been so significant. The day after Obama's inauguration, the president's website mentioned the importance of eliminating these discrepancies--as well as of promoting needle-exchange programs and expanding the nation's embryonic network of drug courts. The House recently held hearings on the sentencing discrepancy issue.

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