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Sen. Jim Webb, My New Hero

Senator Jim Webb is touching a third-rail issue, and for that, he’s my new hero. Earlier this week he published an article in PARADE, “What’s Wrong With Our Prisons?” This week’s Economist followed up in Lexington—the Economist’s American Op-Ed column—with “A Nation of Jailbirds”.

Here’s the quick and dirty:

“America imprisons 756 inmates per 100,000 residents, a rate nearly five times the world’s average. About one in every 31 adults in this country is in jail or on supervised release. Either we are the most evil people on earth or we are doing something very wrong,” (PARADE, 3/29/09).

“For most of the 20th century America imprisoned roughly the same proportion of its population as many other countries—a hundred people for every 100,000 citizens. But while other countries stayed where they were, the American incarceration rate then took off—to 313 per 100,000 in 1985 and 648 in 1997… The war on drugs has pushed the incarceration business into overdrive. The number of people serving time for drugs has increased from 41,000 in 1980 to 500,000 today, or 55% of the population of federal prisons and 21% of those in state prisons. An astonishing three-quarters of prisoners locked up on drug-related charges are black,” (Economist, 4/4/09).

Sen. Webb wrote that “justice statistics also show that 47.5% of all the drug arrests … in 2007 were for marijuana offenses. Additionally, nearly 60% of the people in state prisons serving time for a drug offense had no history of violence or of any significant selling activity. Indeed, four out of five drug arrests were for possession if illegal substances, while only one out of five was for sales.”

Prisons are expensive, and the prison industrial complex is largely financed with tax dollars. Furthermore, law enforcement is clearly super-focused on busting people for drugs. If nearly half of all drugs arrests are for pot, are police—whose salaries are paid with tax dollars—focusing on the right thing?

Does any rational person truly believe that pot is so bad that it should account for so many incarcerations? Is it any worse than tobacco (440,000 deaths a year in USA) or alcohol (85,000) or car accidents (~42,000) or guns (58,000+), which totaled together account for about 625,000 deaths a year, since 2004. (These numbers are taken from Center for Disease Control.) Most first time prisoners go back to jail within 3 years. Prisons are unsafe, violent, overcrowded, and expensive. Criminals are not reformed in prisons so much as they are hardened and transformed by prison life into worse criminals. Worst of all, there are “four times as many mentally ill people in prisons than in mental hospitals,” (Economist).

This is seriously screwed up.

Let’s do this instead: legalize marijuana like other civilized countries have done, regulate it, tax it, pardon the criminals who are in jail for non-violent pot convictions, and recalibrate law enforcement to focus on real problems, like hard drugs and terrorists. The result would be less spending, more tax revenue, and more effective policing in the areas we need.

One Comment

  1. Rev wrote:

    Agreed. Well done.

    Monday, April 6, 2009 at 7:37 pm | Permalink

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