[ExI] punishment [and politicians]

Damien Broderick thespike at satx.rr.com
Sat Mar 28 18:46:54 UTC 2009


Jim Webb's courage v. the "pragmatism" excuse for politicians

Glenn Greenwald

[many links in original text]

Mar. 28, 2009 |

There are few things rarer than a major politician doing something 
that is genuinely courageous and principled, but Jim Webb's 
impassioned commitment to fundamental prison reform is exactly 
that.  Webb's interest in the issue was prompted by his work as a 
journalist in 1984, when he wrote about an American citizen who was 
locked away in a Japanese prison for two years under extremely harsh 
conditions for nothing more than marijuana possession.  After decades 
of mindless "tough-on-crime" hysteria, an increasingly irrational 
"drug war," and a sprawling, privatized prison state as brutal as it 
is counter-productive, America has easily surpassed Japan -- and 
virtually every other country in the world -- to become what Brown 
University Professor Glenn Loury recently described as a nation of 
jailers" whose "prison system has grown into a leviathan unmatched in 
human history."

What's most notable about Webb's decision to champion this cause is 
how honest his advocacy is.  He isn't just attempting to chip away at 
the safe edges of America's oppressive prison state.  His critique of 
what we're doing is fundamental, not incremental.  And, most 
important of all, Webb is addressing head-on one of the principal 
causes of our insane imprisonment fixation:  our aberrational 
insistence on criminalizing and imprisoning non-violent drug 
offenders (when we're not doing worse to them).  That is an issue 
most politicians are petrified to get anywhere near, as evidenced 
just this week by Barack Obama's adolescent, condescending snickering 
when asked about marijuana legalization, in response to which Obama 
gave a dismissive answer that Andrew Sullivan accurately deemed 
"pathetic."  Here are just a few excerpts from Webb's Senate floor 
speech this week on his new bill to create a Commission to study all 
aspects of prison reform:

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. . . .

In many cases these issues involve people's ability to have proper 
counsel and other issues, but there are stunning statistics with 
respect to drugs that we all must come to terms with. 
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. . . .
Another piece of this issue that I hope we will address with this 
National Criminal Justice Commission is what happens inside our 
prisons. . . . We also 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.
Importantly, what are we going to do about drug policy - the whole 
area of drug policy in this country?
And how does that affect sentencing procedures and other alternatives 
that we might look at?

added that "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."

It's hard to overstate how politically thankless, and risky, is 
Webb's pursuit of this issue -- both in general and particularly for 
Webb.  Though there has been some evolution of public opinion on some 
drug policy issues, there is virtually no meaningful organized 
constituency for prison reform.  To the contrary, leaving oneself 
vulnerable to accusations of being "soft on crime" has, for decades, 
been one of the most toxic vulnerabilities a politician can suffer 
(ask Michael Dukakis).  Moreover, the privatized Prison State is a 
booming and highly profitable industry, with an army of lobbyists, 
donations, and other well-funded weapons for targeting candidates who 
threaten its interests.

Most notably, Webb is in the Senate not as an invulnerable, 
multi-term political institution from a safely blue state (he's not 
Ted Kennedy), but is the opposite:  he's a first-term Senator from 
Virginia, one of the "toughest" "anti-crime" states in the country 
(it abolished parole in 1995 and is second only to Texas in the 
number of prisoners it executes), and Webb won election to the Senate 
by the narrowest of margins, thanks largely to George Allen's 
macaca-driven implosion.  As 
Klein wrote, with understatement:  "Lots of politicians make their 
name being anti-crime, which has come to mean pro-punishment. Few 
make their name being pro-prison reform."

For a Senator like Webb to spend his time trumpeting the evils of 
excessive prison rates, racial disparities in sentencing, the unjust 
effects of the Drug War, and disgustingly harsh conditions inside 
prisons is precisely the opposite of what every single political 
consultant would recommend that he do.  There's just no plausible 
explanation for what Webb's actions other than the fact that he's 
engaged in the noblest and rarest of conduct:  advocating a position 
and pursuing an outcome because he actually believes in it and 
believes that, with reasoned argument, he can convince his fellow 
citizens to see the validity of his cause.  And he is doing this 
despite the fact that it potentially poses substantial risks to his 
political self-interest and offers almost no prospect for political 
reward. [etc]

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