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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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TIM ROBINSON

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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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As California goes, so goes the nation.

If that old adage still holds true, then the nation may soon see a gradual backpedaling from the criminal justice policies that have led to wholesale incarceration in recent decades. For the most populous state in the union is on the verge of insolvency--partly because it didn't set aside a rainy-day fund during the boom years; partly because its voters recently rejected a series of initiatives that would have allowed a combination of tax increases, spending cuts and borrowing to help stabilize the state's finances during the downturn; partly because it has spent the past quarter-century funneling tens of billions of dollars into an out-of-control correctional system. Now, as California's politicians contemplate emergency cuts to deal with a $24 billion hole in the state budget, old certainties are crumbling.

The state with the toughest three-strikes law in the land and a prison population of more than 150,000 is facing the real possibility of having to release tens of thousands of inmates early in order to pare its $10 billion annual correctional budget. At the same time, an increasing number of the state's political figures are challenging the basic tenets of the "war on drugs," the culprit most responsible for the spike in prison populations over the past thirty years; they argue that the country's harsh drug policies are not financially viable and no longer command majority support among the voting public.

Similar stories are unfolding around the country; in Washington, federal officials are talking about drug-policy reform and, more generally, sentencing reform in a way that has not been heard in the halls of power for more than a generation.

For old-time politicians, who have spent the past three-plus decades navigating the country's roiling tough-on-crime waters, the changes are almost unfathomable. Onetime California governor and current gubernatorial hopeful Jerry Brown, for example, has spent decades trying to erase the public's memory of his liberal tenure in the 1970s, when California's prison population shrank to well below 30,000. As a part of that remodeling, he has assiduously courted the California Correctional Peace Officers' Association, the trade union representing the state's prison guards. Now, with his war chest flush with CCPOA funds, Brown won't do anything to challenge tough-on-crime orthodoxies.

Yet many newer political faces view the current moment as something of an opportunity. For Betty Yee, chair of California's Board of Equalization--the office responsible for collecting sales tax in the Golden State--the changes, especially around drug-law enforcement, can't come soon enough.

Sitting at her conference table high up in one of downtown Sacramento's few sky-rises, Yee has marijuana on her mind. Specifically, she has become an outspoken advocate for legalizing pot for residents older than 21. Her friend Assemblyman Tom Ammiano, a former San Francisco city councilman, is pushing just such a bill in the State Legislature. Yee wants to levy fees on business owners applying for marijuana licenses, impose an excise tax on sellers and charge buyers a sales tax. Do it properly, and the state could reap about $1.3 billion a year, she has estimated. "Marijuana is so easily available. Why not regulate it like alcohol and tobacco?" she says, and gain additional tax revenue into the bargain?

Not so many years back, any public figure who dared to advocate such reforms would have been shunned by much of the establishment. It's a measure of how much things have changed that Yee and Ammiano's proposal is being taken seriously across the board. In fact, shortly after I met with Yee, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger--whose office declined my request for an interview for this article--announced that the state should at least consider the merits of pot legalization. He wasn't advocating it, he was careful to stress, but he did think the time was ripe to debate the issue.

"The budget is so bad now, the populism of the issue is beginning to work here in the Legislature," Ammiano says as he paces back and forth in his office, toward the bookshelves with the four martini glasses and Golden Gate Bridge bookends and then away again. On the wall near the receptionist's desk hangs a huge poster from the movie Milk. "Everyone thinks it's Cheech and Chong," he says with a laugh, describing the marijuana legalization bill. "But there's a lot of policy wonks" supporting it. "There's very conservative support from the oddest sources and locations." The GOP chair in the state, as well as Tom Campbell, a Republican gubernatorial hopeful, have indicated their support for his bill, Ammiano declares. "When it starts to cost more money than it's worth even in the eyes of the pooh-bahs, then you can accomplish something."

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.

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.

For Margaret Dooley-Sammuli, deputy state director of the Drug Policy Alliance in Southern California, sacrosanct legislative underpinnings of the "war on drugs" are starting to look like the Berlin Wall, "up one day and down the next"--seemingly impregnable; in reality, utterly fragile. Over the past few years, an increasing number of localities have dabbled in ways to simply walk away from the "war on drugs." Initiatives in several states and cities, including Denver; Missoula, Montana; Albany County, Oregon; and Seattle have mandated that law enforcement agencies deprioritize marijuana arrests. Several cities have begun needle-exchange programs. And states like California have passed citizens' initiatives mandating that first-time drug offenders be channeled into treatment programs in lieu of prisons.

Then there's Virginia Senator Jim Webb's legislation creating a blue-ribbon commission on criminal justice reform, with a mandate to put all questions on the table during its eighteen-month tenure--from drug law reform to the restoration of judicial discretion in sentencing, from parole reforms to different approaches to gangs, border patrol, prison architecture and the like. Webb has been pushing for systemic criminal justice reform for years; in 2009, he believes, it will acquire legs. During a telephone interview for this article, Webb said that President Obama "has personally called me on this, and he's very supportive of the idea of moving forward." Across the aisle many Republican senators, including senior figures like Lindsey Graham, have also expressed support for the idea.

The bipartisan backing for Webb's commission is partly a response to the escalating drug-and-gang crisis south of the border. There's a growing recognition in US policy and law enforcement circles that government dysfunction, phenomenal levels of street violence and the rising power of drug cartels are threatening to move from being a Latin American problem to one that destroys the integrity of the Mexican state and risks spilling over more heavily into the American Southwest. Nobody, no matter their political stripe, wants the Tijuana-ization or Juárez-ization of Phoenix or Los Angeles, of San Diego or El Paso.

"It really is a serious problem in this country," Webb argues. "The transnational gangs or syndicates are bringing a tremendous amount of drugs into this country."

To get a handle on that problem involves thinking of ways to neutralize these gangs, which inevitably leads to a discussion of partial drug decriminalization or legalization. Why? Because once the drug market is no longer confined to the shadows--once it is regulated and taxed, as alcohol was after Prohibition ended in 1933--the violence that accompanies struggles for control of that illicit market will disappear. After years of denying this truth and assuming that the country could incarcerate its way out of the drug-abuse epidemic, a number of American politicians, Webb included, are touting that seemingly paradoxical fact. Want to get really tough on crime? Well, do the smart thing: start working out ways to neutralize the drug cartels, start talking about at least limited forms of decriminalization or legalization.

It is, Webb argues, "a fair issue for this commission. Every piece of it should be fair game."

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.

"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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