Posted in Chronicle Blog by Scott Morgan on Fri, 01/18/2008 - 12:42am
How shall I respond when a prominent politician rejects drug legalization, while in the same breath criticizing the costs and consequences of our wildly bloated criminal justice system? Should I condemn his tacit endorsement of the drug war or give him credit for at least recognizing a problem that so many still pretend doesn’t exist? I guess I'll try to do both.
Here's what Barack Obama said when a questioner pointed out how lucky he is to have avoided arrest for his past drug use and asked if he would consider ending the drug war:"I'm not interested in legalizing drugs,'' Obama said, adding that he prefers an approach that puts more emphasis on a public health approach to drugs and less emphasis on incarceration.
He said there should be more programs to keep young people from using drugs. And he said first-time offenders should be given help to overcome their drug use instead of being locked up at massive taxpayer expense from which they emerge as unemployable ex-convicts.
"All we do is give them a master's degree in criminology,'' Obama said. [AP]
What a shame that Obama's most forward-thinking comments on criminal justice reform must be prefaced with a rejection of the one idea that has a chance of working. The inherent flaw in Obama's narrow, palatable rhetoric is revealed unintentionally by The Weekly Standard's Jonathan Last:The only problem with this is that there are very, very few people incarcerated for first-time drug use.
Last goes on to laboriously downplay the persecution of first-time offenders in our criminal justice system. It's an outrageous attempt to argue that everyone in prison deserves to be there. But it does have the effect of reminding us how limited Obama's proposed reforms truly are.
The root of our drug war-fueled incarceration crisis lies in the practice of vigorously arresting and criminalizing people for having drugs. As long as this machinery remains in place, our prison population will continue to grow exponentially. Obama's first-time offender focused model of criminal justice reform is like trying to drain an olympic swimming pool with a pint glass.
Meanwhile, the drug war itself continues to function as a massive black market job recruitment program; a fully functional drug offender factory whose participants are often much more addicted to grocery money than drugs. Treatment-focused reform strategies don't address or even acknowledge this. Still, it remains perfectly commonplace for proponents of partial criminal justice reform to insist that we continue imprisoning suppliers while searching for ever more suppliers to imprison, all while failing entirely to disrupt supply.
The silver lining here is that important people are becoming increasingly comfortable admitting that something is wrong. When the reforms they've agreed upon fail to address the problem, they can't just go back and pretend to be cool with it. They've promised to fix our criminal justice system and if they continue to follow the trail of clues, they will eventually find themselves face to face with the war on drugs.