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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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For an administration like Obama's that prides itself on thinking outside the box, systemic drug policy reform is an intriguing prospect. An increasing number of law enforcement people and judges have also decided that this is an idea worth running with.

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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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"I've never seen so much interest," says retired Orange County superior court judge James Gray, who has been advocating marijuana legalization since the early 1990s. "My phone is ringing much more than it ever has before."

"We need to ask, Is there a more sensible approach?" argues Norm Stamper, who, like Kerlikowske, is a former chief of police of Seattle who believes the criminal justice system is broken. "And the answer is prevention and education and treatment."

After decades of being on the defensive, progressive criminal justice reformers suddenly have a receptive audience. New York, which has closed some of its prisons in the past decade, has spent the last few years unraveling the tangled web created by the 1970s-era Rockefeller drug laws. Michigan, Louisiana and several other states have also scaled back their harshest mandatory drug sentences. The State of Washington is looking at how to redefine low-end drug and property crimes as misdemeanors rather than felonies. And in Michigan, which allows a $100 theft to trigger a four-year prison sentence, legislators are pushing to make the threshold $1,000 instead, so as to reduce the number of low-end offenders pushed into long-term incarceration and hobbled for life by felony convictions.

Meanwhile, correctional system administrators in Georgia, Illinois and Arkansas have started the long, hard task of reforming their systems from within even without a new consensus emerging on the issue.

Howard Wooldridge, a retired police detective from Bath, Michigan, who advocates in DC for criminal justice system reform, says the moment is ripe for change. "I've been doing this for twelve years, and this is by far the most perfect storm."

America isn't about to abandon all of its "tough on crime" tenets. Nor should it in all instances. The three-strikes law will likely remain in place for violent offenders, as will the growing body of laws limiting where sex offenders may live. Violent crimes will probably continue to trigger longer sentences than they did before the get-tough movement. And while some inmates will qualify for early release, many sentenced to long terms at the height of the tough-on-crime years will stay in prison. But out of economic necessity and because of shifting mores, the country will likely get more selective, and smarter, about how it uses incarceration and whom it targets for long spells behind bars.

This will be especially true for drug policy--the multi-tentacled beast that's sucking most people into jails and prisons. There, profound changes are likely to develop over the next few years. And when it comes to the mentally ill, momentum continues to build around mental health courts designed to get people medical and counseling help rather than simply to shunt them off to prison. States like Pennsylvania are starting to develop parallel institutions to deal with mentally ill people who run afoul of the law. Many other states will likely follow suit in the near future. Forty years after deinstitutionalization, a new consensus is emerging that prisons became an accidental, de facto alternative to mental hospitals, and that very little good has come from that development.

"I believe that we have a compelling national interest," explains Senator Webb, referring to systemic criminal justice reform. "That's a term that is carefully chosen. This is a national commission, but it should not be limited to looking at the federal prison system. You have to look at the whole picture and then boil it down into resolvable issues."

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