#384 Presidential Leadership Needed

Date: Sun, 7 Sep 2008
Subject: #384 Presidential Leadership Needed


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DrugSense FOCUS Alert #384 – Sunday, 7 September 2008

“What if major party nominees Barack Obama and John McCain were
pressed to state their positions on drugs and incarceration?” writes
syndicated columnist Neal Peirce.

Please raise the issue with those running for public office and by
sending letters to the editor. Please ask your local newspapers to
print the column below.

As MAP’s volunteer activists find this column printed in other
newspapers they will be listed at the top of this webpage


Contact: opinion@seattletimes.com

Pubdate: Sun, 7 Sep 2008
Source: Seattle Times (WA)
Copyright: 2008 Washington Post Writers Group
Author: Neal Peirce, Syndicated Columnist


Will America’s ill-starred “war on drugs” and its expanding prison
culture make it into the presidential campaign?

Standard wisdom says “no way.”

We may have the world’s highest rate of incarceration — with only 5
percent of global population, 25 percent of prisoners worldwide. We
may be throwing hundreds of thousands of nonviolent drug offenders,
many barely of age, behind bars — one reason a stunning one out of
every 100 Americans is now imprisoned. We may have created a huge
“prison-industrial complex” of prison builders, contractors and
swollen criminal justice bureaucracies.

Federal, state and local outlays for law enforcement and incarceration
are costing, according to a Senate committee estimate, a stunning $200
billion annually, siphoning off funds from enterprises that actually
build our future: universities, schools, health, infrastructure.

We are reaping the whirlwind of “get tough” on crime statutes ranging
from “three strikes you’re in” to mandatory sentences to
reincarcerating recent prisoners for minor parole violations. And
every year we’re seeing hundreds of thousands of convicts leave prison
with scant chances of being employed, no right to vote, no access to
public housing, high levels of addiction, illiteracy and mental
illness. Overwhelmed by the odds against them, at least 50 percent are
rearrested within two years.

A serious set of problems, a shadow over our national future? No
doubt. But do our politicians talk much about alternatives? No way —
they typically find it too risky to be attacked as “soft on crime.”

But let’s imagine — what if major party nominees Barack Obama and
John McCain were pressed to state their positions on drugs and

I’ve combed through statements by both men. My early reading is that
with McCain, there’d be a thin chance of reform, but under Obama, much
brighter prospects.

It is true that both men favored — Obama actually co-sponsored — the
federal Second Chance Act, passed this year, which provides up to $360
million to support job training, mentors and counseling for inmates
released from custody.

But McCain has been routinely “hawkish” on drug policy, endorsing
higher penalties for drug-selling, supporting the death penalty for
drug kingpins, and opposing any softening of laws forbidding marijuana
use, which he characterizes as a dangerous “gateway drug.”

Obama, by contrast, expresses serious concern that at 2 million-plus
inmates, “we have by far the largest prison population, per capita, of
any place on earth.” He endorses full justice and imprisonment for
dangerous criminals but a far more nuanced approach to drug cases in

“Anybody who sees the devastating impact of the drug trade in the
inner cities, or the methamphetamine trade in rural communities, knows
that this is a huge problem,” he recently told a Rolling Stone
interviewer. “I believe in shifting the paradigm, shifting the model,
so that we can focus on a more public-health approach.”

During the primary season Obama spoke with special concern about
nonviolent drug offenders, many as young as 18 to 20: “The worst thing
we can do is to lock them up for a long period of time, without any
education if they’re functionally illiterate, without any skills or
training. They’re now convicted felons” — perhaps 25 or 26 years old
— “out on the streets and can’t be hired by anybody.”

His conclusion: The more focus put on diversion programs, drug courts,
treatment of substance abusers, and “encourage training and skills and
literacy … the more effective we are in reducing recidivism rates.”

Obama is clearly not yet willing to discuss lifting prohibitions on
marijuana or other drugs. But he would seem open to lead the country
in a serious debate about our drug and incarceration policies — a
dramatic break from recent presidencies, both Republican and Democratic.

Arguably, that’s precisely the discussion the nation needs. America’s
prisoner total has tripled over the last two decades, with systems
bursting at the seams — California, for example, at 175 percent of
capacity, Alabama at 200 percent. Yet North Carolina anticipates 1,000
more prisoners a year; Pennsylvania, 1,500; Arizona, 2,200; Florida

Small wonder major prisoner re-entry and diversion facilities for less
serious offenders are being set up in Kansas, Michigan, Georgia and
other states. California this November votes on a landmark “nonviolent
offender rehabilitation” initiative designed to divert thousands from
the state’s bloated $10-billion-a-year prison system.

It’s high time, says Georgia Corrections Commissioner Jim Donald, “to
differentiate between those offenders we are ‘afraid of’ and those we
are just ‘mad at.’ ”

Talk about a serious national issue on which we could use some
presidential leadership — not dictating precise answers, but moving
us to debate alternatives. It’s been 20 years since drugs and prisons
have even been mentioned in the televised presidential debates. Maybe
not just Obama but McCain too could surprise us with some fresh ideas
and promise of leadership as president. But we probably won’t hear
this unless reporters press the issue.


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