Politics & Media
Mar 30, 2009, 11:29AM

Essential Drug-Policy Reading from Sen. Webb

Jim Webb’s remarkably clearheaded proposal before Congress illuminates the stakes behind the nation’s failed drug policy. Now’s as good a time as any to reread Falconer.

I’m pleased to report that the comment thread on my Friday article about Obama’s marijuana-legalization remarks was intelligent and relatively civil for these kinds of things. My main point was about Obama’s juvenile handling of the question rather than my own personal feelings about drug policy, but the cat got out of bag rather quickly in the comments, and the vast majority of discussion surrounded the legalization debate itself.

To that end, anyone with any interest in this debate should read Senator Jim Webb’s Floor Speech to Introduce “The National Criminal Justice Commission Act of 2009” (pdf) which expands the parameters of this issue with grace and bravery. Introduced on the same day that Obama gave a smirking non-response to the question of marijuana legalization, Webb, with the acknowledged support of Arlen Specter, outlines why this fight is about more than certain peoples’ desire to get high and be left alone. I’ll highlight the key numbers out front:

Let's start with a premise that I don't think a lot of Americans are aware of. We have 5% of the world's population; we have 25% of the world's known prison population. We have an incarceration rate in the United States, the world's greatest democracy, that is five times as high as the average incarceration rate of the rest of the world. There are only two possibilities here: either we have the most evil people on earth living in the United States; or we are doing something dramatically wrong in terms of how we approach the issue of criminal justice.


The elephant in the bedroom in many discussions on the criminal justice system is the sharp increase in drug incarceration over the past three decades. In 1980, we had 41,000 drug offenders in prison; today we have more than 500,000, an increase of 1,200%. The blue disks represent the numbers in 1980; the red disks represent the numbers in 2007 and a significant percentage of those incarcerated are for possession or nonviolent offenses stemming from drug addiction and those sorts of related behavioral issues. [Webb refers to the graph on Page 4 of this document (pdf).]


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 other elements of 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 by the numbers that have been provided by us.

In other words, Webb calls for a comprehensive reform not only of our current criminal justice system, but of our government’s very conception of what “criminal justice” should be. Naturally, this relates to our wasteful and ineffective drug policy because, as Webb illustrates, this issue opens the doors to many essential questions about our prison and justice systems, including whether those systems adequately represent the realities of crime in our country demographically, whether they operate consistently from city to city and jurisdiction to jurisdiction, and whether we’re spending a bizarre amount of time prosecuting and incarcerating nonviolent crimes that other likeminded governments don’t view as similarly worthy of imprisonment.

(It’s worth mentioning that Webb’s far-reaching proposal, despite its relevance to the ongoing Mexican violence and Secretary of State Clinton's commentary thereon, wasn’t covered by The Washington Post, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, or the AP.)

Webb obviously mentions plenty of issues beyond drug policy, particularly prison reform. Which, to get away from politics and back near my preferred journalistic territory, reminded me of the recent surge in John Cheever-related essays to occasion the release of Blake Bailey’s new biography and the Library of America’s simultaneous publication of Cheever's Collected Stories and Other Writings and The Complete Novels. Cheever remains best known for his suburban-set short stories, but his 1978 novel Falconer remains one of the most startling and intimate accounts of prison life I’ve read. It is an artful, ugly cry for criminal justice reform before the issue became well known, and, apropos Webb’s figures, before the situation became even more indecent and unfair.  Webb’s proposed legislation reveals Cheever’s prescience; no better time than now to reacquaint ourselves with this great book.

(I can't resist):

  • How kind of Senator Webb to address this issue at the same time as we're discussing it here. I think the most important thing to understand about Webb is that he doesn't want to change bits and pieces of the criminal justice system (by only reducing drug sentences, for example), but sees systemic problems with the whole thing. The idea of a commission exploring the issue sounds like a great idea to me. Anyone interested with this issue should definitely check out Atul Gawande's terrific piece in the New Yorker about solitary confinement: http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2009/03/30/090330fa_fact_gawande

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