Webb: 'We Are Locking Up Too Many People Who Do Not Belong in Jail'

Writing in Parade magazine, Sen. Jim Webb (D-Va.) notes that the war on drugs is largely responsible for America's remarkably high incarceration rate:

The United States has by far the world's highest incarceration rate. With 5% of the world's population, our country now houses nearly 25% of the world's reported prisoners. We currently incarcerate 756 inmates per 100,000 residents, a rate nearly five times the average worldwide of 158 for every 100,000....

Drug offenders, most of them passive users or minor dealers, are swamping our prisons. According to data supplied to Congress' Joint Economic Committee, those imprisoned for drug offenses rose from 10% of the inmate population to approximately 33% between 1984 and 2002. Experts estimate that this increase accounts for about half of the dramatic escalation in the total number imprisoned over that period. Yet locking up more of these offenders has done nothing to break up the power of the multibillion-dollar illegal drug trade. Nor has it brought about a reduction in the amounts of the more dangerous drugs—such as cocaine, heroin, and methamphetamines—that are reaching our citizens.

Justice statistics also show that 47.5% of all the drug arrests in our country 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 of illegal substances, while only one out of five was for sales. Three-quarters of the drug offenders in our state prisons were there for nonviolent or purely drug offenses.

Webb concludes that "we are not protecting our citizens from the increasing danger of criminals who perpetrate violence and intimidation as a way of life, and we are locking up too many people who do not belong in jail." The main examples he cites of "criminals who perpetrate violence and intimidation as a way of life" are Latin American drug traffickers, including those responsible for killing 6,000 Mexicans last year. But having recognized how the war on drugs imprisons people who are not threats to public safety, Webb fails to acknowledge how it funds, motivates, and strengthens those who are. Webb's implied solution is to lock up violent drug traffickers instead of "passive users or minor dealers." Yet such an approach, while certainly preferable to the mindlessly draconian status quo, would not eliminate the black market that breeds violence and disorder. Instead, as Mexico has discovered, the unsettled conditions created by government crackdowns on traffickers lead to even more violence. As "a senior U.S. official" told The Wall Street Journal last month, "If the drug effort were failing there would be no violence."

Radley Balko on Jim Webb here and here. Me on the U.S. incarceration rate here and on sentencing reform here.

[Thanks to Suzanne Wills for the tip.]

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  • ||

    What? But, but--

    Our insatiable demand for illegal drugs fuels the drug trade. Our inability to prevent weapons from being illegally smuggled across the border to arm these criminals causes the death of police officers, soldiers and civilians," Clinton said. "I feel very strongly we have a co-responsibility.

  • kinnath||

    Why is the blatantly, self-obvious so difficult for elected officials to see?

  • ||

    Oops, left off some quotes. Please do the little finger quote thing at the beginning and at the end of the quotes above.

  • ||

    It aint much, but I'll take it. Lets hear more from Senator Webb. Lets ask him the logical follow up questions as succinctly laid out by mr. Balko. That faint buzzing in the breeze is a few thin reeds of common sense. We may be able to work with this man, lets support the Senator from the inevitable attack of the zombies his near-truthful utterance will undoubtedly incur.

    In related news, anyone see the Ron Paul drug legalization segment on Campbell Brown last week, opposite Ernest Istook. Total joke. There does seem to be more of this anti-drug war talk in teh news lately though. My hope is Obama's smug laugh last week was just the latest bit of misdirection. A man can dream.

  • TofuSushi||

    Sen. Webb is the greatest.

  • creech||

    It would be helpful if Webb had included a table showing criminal penalties for various crimes in other "civilized" countries. The cover of the mag asked if the U.S. were "the most evil" country? Is crime just better reported here, do actual criminals - say muggers - get punished here but not in, say, the U.K.? Justice and fairness demand ending the drug war and requiring more restitution and not prison time to substantially reduce America's incarcerated population, regardless of what other countries do.

  • The Real TofuSushi||

    I don't know who this joker is (@ 2:28 PM), but the TofuSushi posting is not me.

    That aside, the Mexicans in the article are only being discriminated against because they are minorities. Thanks a lot, Obama.

  • jeremy Kareken||

    I certainly don't disagree with Sen. Webb's main point, that the war on drugs is a waste of money and happens to be counter-productive to law-and-order. However, I don't particularly care about the numbers or proportion of people incarcerated - rather that each person gets their due process and that justice is served. We may end up having a higher percentage of inmates than other countries regardless.

  • ||

    do actual criminals - say muggers - get punished here but not in, say, the U.K.?

    Muggings are obsolete in the UK. Guns are illegal and there are cameras on every citizen. It's an island of safety over there.

  • ||

    As "a senior U.S. official" told The Wall Street Journal last month, "If the drug effort were failing there would be no violence."



    I'm speechless. How can anyone contest such flawless logic.

  • ||

    Senator Webb is a freshman from the biggest "tough on crime" state after Texas. He's championing reform because it's necessary and good, not because it will help him get reelected.

    Glass half full people!

  • The Angry Optimist||

    "senior U.S. officials" are invariably fucking retarded.

  • TofuSushi||

    Wowzer! Someone must really be having a little kiddie fit about my not agreeing with them.

  • matt2||

    Parade magazine? I'm anxiously awaiting the TV Guide exclusive on Webb's next statement.

  • The Phantom skulker||

    "Wowzer! Someone must really be having a little kiddie fit about my not agreeing with them."

    You don't even agree with yourself.

  • TofuSushi||

    You don't even agree with yourself.

    You must be talking about the imposters.

  • ||

    Every little bit helps. Really, the "senior U.S. official" knows he's talking out his ass - but he has a house payment to make and two kids that will need a college tuition. Webb knows the drug war is lost also but he doesn't want to come out and say the awful fact until he gets some sign from his constitutents that calling for an end to prohibition won't end his political carreer.

    I've worked with these guys and remember a conversation a couple of years ago: reviewing the Afghan "aid" budget I was shocked at how much was being spent on destroying opium fields. I asked if they thought how this might be viewed by the peasants having their main cash crop destoyed and that would advance our goal of wiping out the Taliban? Thier answer was that it wouldn't help us but the american voter wants an unending war against drugs and they will fight it until the american voter changes their minds.

  • ||

    However, I don't particularly care about the numbers or proportion of people incarcerated - rather that each person gets their due process and that justice is served.

    I don't know how you can care about whether justice is served without caring about how many people are jailed and what they are jailed for.

  • ||

    With 5% of the world's population, our country now houses nearly 25% of the world's reported prisoners

    The vast majority of the world population lives in dictatorships that have mass executions and/or aren't terribly open about what punishments they're doling out.

    Webb's larger point is of course correct, but his statistics are flawed. It would be better to compare our incarceration rate to that of other stable democratic countries, but the difference wouldn't be as stark then.

  • ||

    I don't know who this joker is at 2:28, 2:40, and 2:55, but I am actually the real TofuSushi. Note my email address, it will be included in all of my posts. If it;s not there, the poster is an impostor.

  • ||

    matt2

    I'm sure Webb's statements will catch an awful lot more eyeballs at Parade than at Reason.

    And certainly a lot more eyeballs of people who need to have their minds changed about this subject.

    It's possibly one of the reasons he's soft pedalling too. Baby steps, we've got an awful lot of people who can' even walk here, the argument won't get far if you expect the masses to run away with the idea of decriminalization.

    Tony's right. If the GOP play this they could end Webb's career.

    For what it's worth I've pretty much given up hope for sanity here. But guys like Webb (and that DA in Dallas) give me just a glimmer of hope.

  • Taktix®||

    The vast majority of the world population lives in dictatorships that have mass executions and/or aren't terribly open about what punishments they're doling out.

    Webb's larger point is of course correct, but his statistics are flawed.


    Agreed, but I was willing to mutter bullshit under my breath for the greater good. And at least it's a "fact-based" statistic, rather than one originating 100% from the pol's ass...

  • ||

    Senator Webb is a freshman from the biggest "tough on crime" state after Texas. He's championing reform because it's necessary and good, not because it will help him get reelected.

    Glass half full people!


    Glenn Greenwald recently wrote a decent piece regarding Senator Webb.

  • Ska||

    Totally off-topic - WSJ NEWS ALERT: Obama Administration Pushing Bankruptcy as Lead Option for Carmakers.

    Out-fucking-standing.

  • ||

    Notice how the only Democrat in Congress against the WoD is a quasi-conservative blue dog. I don't think the Obamatarians over at NORML would have predicted that.

  • ||

    Obama Administration Pushing Bankruptcy as Lead Option for Carmakers.



    WTF? He gives them billions of our our money and then tells them to file bankruptcy? Isn't criminal fraud an impeachable offense?

  • ||

    Dems still think going against the cherished WoD is a losing issue--and they're certainly right to fear Republican attacks on the issue (they're attacking anything and everything because they really don't want Dems to succeed at healthcare, among other things).

    But, to echo Greenwald to whom J sub D referenced, it is the definition of leadership to try and shift public opinion when it's in the wrong place. Anybody still gung-ho about keeping weed illegal is simply thinking reflexively without addressing facts or logic.

    Nobody with Obama's stated admiration for evidence and logical consistency can actually be in favor of the status quo. In a genuine debate on the issue the WoD crusaders wouldn't win. Why can't they simply turn the tables and make WoD people defend their position? Obama's managed to "elevate and educate" on other issues. Perhaps if he gets the current crises under control he'll have another opportunity on this issue.

  • ||

    Brandybuck, the unions had to get paid first.

  • T||

    One down, 534 to go.

  • Taktix®||

    Obama Administration Pushing Bankruptcy as Lead Option for Carmakers.

    But... but... we're still getting paid back of those "loans" we gave them, right?

    Well, I guess it could be worse. We could have just kept feeding them money indefinately, like passenger rail, farmers, old people, poor people, state governments, local governments, universities, community colleges, artists... *trails off*

  • T||

    Obama's managed to "elevate and educate" on other issues.

    Name one, just one, where he isn't pushing a policy that was known to be a failure before I was born.

  • Stewie||

    Wait a second - Parade Magazine? We read PARADE MAGAZINE?

  • ||

    Don't defame Parade Magazine, it has its finger on the pulse of Americans who don't matter even a little bit.

  • Fluffy||

    However, I don't particularly care about the numbers or proportion of people incarcerated - rather that each person gets their due process and that justice is served. We may end up having a higher percentage of inmates than other countries regardless.

    I wouldn't want to use statistics to devise my system of laws either. I would want to sit down and morally reason what the laws should be.

    But having said that, there's always a chance that my moral reason is imperfect, despite the fact that it seems pretty fucking outstanding to me. And I would be willing to use statistics to check my work, as it were. If I sit down in an olive grove with a bunch of philosophers and we come up with a system of laws using moral philosophy, but when those laws are applied in the world it turns out that they produce absurd and massive incarceration rates, I might want to consider that maybe I fucked up and there's something wrong with my system of laws.

  • Taktix®||

    Don't defame Parade Magazine, it has its finger on the pulse of Americans who don't matter even a little bit.

    But in Soviet Russia, Parade fingers you!

  • ||

    Name one, just one, where he isn't pushing a policy that was known to be a failure before I was born.

    I was thinking specifically about his "race speech" which is credited with raising the level of discussion on the subject. The entire purpose of his many media appearances is that he's his admin's best spokesperson and he takes a keen interest in explaining wonkish things so that people can better understand them.

    Of course there are times when he's just using political sophistry, but mostly on proposals that aren't really well formed in the first place (his original healthcare plan, e.g.).

    If he just gets up and lays out the facts on the WoD (especially its cost) I don't see why this can't be a winning issue. Just depends on how much of Reagan's war on scary black people who are gonna rape your daughter still persists as a motivator for people.

  • Ska||

    Is there an age cutoff where the Yakov Smirnov joke ceases to make sense? I had told my friend (in their late 20s) that "I learned it from watching you." They had no clue what I was referencing.

    Wouldn't this joke be even less popular? Or has teh intert00bs immortalized the legend of YS?

  • ||

    Obama's managed to "elevate and educate" on other issues. Perhaps if he gets the current crises under control he'll have another opportunity on this issue.

    You will have to wait until Il Duce raises the dead from their graves and turns water into wine, then he will be able to wrestle the WoD from his minions and turn it into the War on Something Else or Other.

  • ||

    Just depends on how much of Reagan's war on scary black people who are gonna rape your daughter still persists as a motivator for people.

    That wasn't Reagan, that was Steve Sodenberg, and that wasn't your daughter, that was Erika Christensen. You watch too many movies...

  • ||

    Steven Soderbergh.

  • Reinmoose||

    Tony, how do you reconcile "Perhaps if he gets the current crises under control he'll have another opportunity on this issue." and "Nobody with Obama's stated admiration for evidence and logical consistency can actually be in favor of the status quo." with the way he reacted to the question during his online town hall meeting?

  • ||

    Writing in Parade magazine, Sen. Jim Webb (D-Va.) notes that the war on drugs is largely responsible for America's remarkably high incarceration rate.

    Breaking news indeed . . . I mean, it's not like this was pointed out like a million times (!!) by Ron Paul before. But, hey, this guy is a Senator and a Democrat, so people must listen to him and not the "other" guy.

  • ||

    Hell, why have an online townhall meeting if the majority of people online are so silly as to think pot should be legal? I mean, come on, there's only like a 100 million of us who can or will soon be able to vote.

  • ||

    Right, FTG. It should have been 2 down, 533 to go.

  • Mari Dupont||

    Parade's a coup; it's circulation is huge and it's the perfect place to reach "normal people" who may not give this topic much thought. We need Middle American behind us in order to win this battle; when Sen. Webb makes the cover of People, our job is done.

  • ||


    I was thinking specifically about his "race speech" which is credited with raising the level of discussion on the subject.


    Well, after his appointed AG, Eric Holden, called everybody "cowards", the discussion was indeed raised, but in TONE.

    The entire purpose of his many media appearances is that he's his [administration's] best spokesperson and he takes a keen interest in explaining wonkish things so that people can better understand them.

    As long as he has his teleprompter. Otherwise he suffers from bouts of uncontrollable giggles and "um, um, um's."

    Of course there are times when he's just using political sophistry, but mostly on proposals that aren't really well formed in the first place (his original health care plan, [for instance].)

    So he talks in riddles and parables . . .

  • max hats||


    The vast majority of the world population lives in dictatorships that have mass executions and/or aren't terribly open about what punishments they're doling out.



    The majority of the world does not live under dictatorship, to say the least not the "vast" majority.

  • BakedPenguin||

    I have to agree with Mari. Parade may be a slightly more sophisticated Grit, but that just makes it all the more impressive that an anti-drug war article appeared there.

    And while I hate to agree with Tony about anything, this -

    ...it is the definition of leadership to try and shift public opinion when it's in the wrong place. Anybody still gung-ho about keeping weed illegal is simply thinking reflexively without addressing facts or logic.


    - is quite true. I'm going to write an email to Senator Webb's office, praising him for his courage and insight. I'd ask that all of you do the same. If we want more of this thinking out of our politicians, we have to encourage it when it occurs.

  • ||

    kinnath says:
    Why is the blatantly, self-obvious so difficult for elected officials to see?

    It's not difficult for them to see it - it's difficult for them to say it. Also note that in the Netherlands, where drugs are decriminalized, the rate of drug use is less than it is here.

  • ||

    Notice how the only Democrat in Congress against the WoD is a quasi-conservative blue dog. I don't think the Obamatarians over at NORML would have predicted that.

    Barney Frank. Hate him for economic and fiscal policies, but regarding the War on Drugs Liberty he's been spot on for years.

  • ||

    Unfortunately, the Dems now in power have compared their wish list of social engineering against their available stock of political capital, and have determined that rolling back the WOD just doesn't make the cut.

  • ||

    I was thinking specifically about his "race speech" which is credited with raising the level of discussion on the subject.

    I must have missed that. I thought what raised the level of discussion on race during the campaign was when the good Rev. Wright cancelled his book plans and hopped a one-way flight to Africa.

  • Medic||

    Its for the children people. How selfish can you be? >:)

  • MNG||

    Tofusushi, the troll, gets a troll. How wonderful.

    I've always thought the interesting thing about him is the incredibly skewed view the guy has of liberals. It's as if he's been kept as a "gimp-like" sex slave in the President of ACT UP's/ANSWER'S cellar for ten years, with his only interface with other humans being when they let Marxist gay vegetarian activists double team him...

  • ||

    But having recognized how the war on drugs imprisons people who are not threats to public safety, Webb fails to acknowledge how it funds, motivates, and strengthens those who are.

    Bootleggers and Baptists.

    Instead, as Mexico has discovered, the unsettled conditions created by government crackdowns on traffickers lead to even more violence.

    The crackdown on traffickers works in the same manner as Natural Selection does for species: The first to be incarcerated where the small-time, friend-of-a-friend dealers, normally harmless. Once they were gone, they were replaced by more shady individuals, still, small time, not very dangerous, but not friendly either. Once THOSE were incarcerated, they were replaced by ruffians, people with no scruples and little to lose, increasing the violence due to turf wars. Once THOSE guys were gone, they were replaced by the TRULY HORRIBLE characters, people who do not value human life. These people makes enforcement much more deadly because they have more market share and less incentive to let it go.

  • ||

    This won't be a popular view on this board, but there would be a cost to the legalization of drugs. More people would be addicted, and some of those people would commit crimes to pay for their legal drugs. If cocaine were legal don't you think people would steal to feed their habit?

    There will also be an economic drain caused by quasi-addicts who are too stoned to work or to achieve much.

    It may well be that this "legalization cost" is less than the criminalization cost we bear now, but legalization is not a free ride.

  • ||

    meerdahl,

    The legal status of intoxicating substances plays less of a role on demand than you'd think. Regardless, any legalization scheme would come with greater emphasis on treatment (over imprisonment). I think the problems created by prohibition vastly outweigh the problems created by legalization. Besides, if you actually account for the damage caused by specific substances, your line of reasoning must extend to prohibition of alcohol. We know how well that turned out.

  • ||

    Every time I read something about incarceration rates and the staggering number of people in the penal system or junkies and people in treatment and then I read about the homeless or the impoverished I just can't help but think..."Soylent Green"

  • Batman||

    [Taktix® | March 30, 2009, 3:41pm | #
    Obama Administration Pushing Bankruptcy as Lead Option for Carmakers.

    But... but... we're still getting paid back of those "loans" we gave them, right?

    Well, I guess it could be worse. We could have just kept feeding them money indefinately, like passenger rail, farmers, old people, poor people, state governments, local governments, universities, community colleges, artists... *trails off*]

    I suspect we will continue subsidizing them even in bankruptcy. We have to preserve those union jobs after all, and bankruptcy will be a cover.

  • Batman||

    I've become increasingly influenced by libertarian philosophy lately, but the push for drug legalization is your Achilles heel. It has about as much support in the general population as substituting Creationism for Biology in school classrooms. Really, you guys are that far out of the mainstream. Do any of you have kids?

  • Batman||

    Keep pushing drug legalization, and the Libertarian Party will continue to be seen as a small bunch of cranks.

  • SteveM||

    "we are locking up too many people who do not belong in jail"

    Maybe we are, and maybe we aren't. But Webb offers no evidence either way.

    My understanding is that the typical person who goes to jail "for a drug offence" has actually plea bargined down to that from something more serious. Certainly the crime rates dropped sharply at the same time as the incarcaraton rates went up.

  • Batman||

    On the other hand, maybe legalizing crack would lead to a thinning of the herd as addicts drove themselves to death. Might be a silver lining to large cities with crime-ridden underclasses like the one I live in. I suppose you would have to include meth also, to make the effect race neutral.

  • Batman||

    SteveM, You are correct. Few people are ever arrested for mere drug possession.

  • ||

    I would like to know the amounts of weaponry being smuggled into the drug cartels from ALL sources, not just north america. From some of the reports I see some heavy infantry weapons (.50 cal rifles) coming from US, perhaps supplies meant to fight drug trade(?), but grenades and launchers? And if we do clamp down on flow of weapons from US (which we should) I fear it will take like a week to get more cheaper, full auto infantry weapons by the crateload from other sources in south/central america, europe, africa, asia, middle east. If the cartels aren't doing that now.

  • DWPittelli||

    The article is either very badly written, or it deliberately and dishonestly skirts around reality in its claims about who is incarcerated. For example the claim that "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" seems crafted to sound like most of the people in state prisons serving time for a drug offense were simply possessing for personal use; but it actually says that while many of these 60% are in for selling drugs, this is the first time ("no history") they have been convicted of selling. The mixing of this imprisonment statistic with arrest statistics (almost half for marijuana, only one out of five for sales) adds to the confusion. The final claim that "Three-quarters of the drug offenders in our state prisons were there for nonviolent or purely drug offenses" also includes people selling crack and heroin, but I think most readers wouldn't realize this at that point.

    All that said, I support legalization, especially for marijuana. More broadly, while I don't think maintaining the "war on drugs" is compatible with defeating gangsters, jihadists and third-world Marxists, I also don't think legalization is compatible with the current welfare state.

  • The Skeptic||

    I've been in the criminal justice business for over 30 years. My experience at the front lines of sentencing various criminals reveals to me the fact that one reason crime rates have dropped in the U.S. since the 90's is that criminals are being locked up at higher rates and for longer periods. Most drug crimes that result in imprisonment, at least in my state, tend to involve people who are, for lack of a more precise word, criminals. In other words, they'd be committing crimes whether there were drugs involved or not. They get caught with/dealing drugs and they get locked up. They then can't commit other crimes. Thus, I would predict that if we de-criminalized drugs our non-drug crime rates would climb even though there'd be less incentive for addicts to commit crimes. Criminals tend to commit crimes.

  • SteveM||

    Instead, as Mexico has discovered, the unsettled conditions created by government crackdowns on traffickers lead to even more violence.

    Oh, right. The reason that Mexico is a failed state is that it's so zealous in cracking down on drug traffickers! This is one of those places where libertarianism loses touch with reality and wanders off into its own fantasy world.

  • ||

    Uh, Reagan's war on scary black people? Since we're talking about statistics Tony, maybe you should look at the black-on-white crime rate in this country. Webb lost all of my respect when he and his minions played the "macaca" card on Allen or have you conveniently forgotten that too?

  • ||

    Look, this is fine topic for debate, but don't cheat it. So often these articles make it sound as if our prisons are stuffed full of sad sacks who got caught with a couple of joints in the glove box. Bull-.

    You have to try hard to go to prison in the US, particularly in the state court systems - primarily because prisons are so full to start with. It's the drug dealers who are in prison - and not penny-ante high-schoolers.

    First of all, it's rare for a drug dealer to go to prison for his first, or second or third or sometimes fourth or fifth, felony offense. Juvenile cases? Two or three juvie drug cases don't count. Then there's "youhful offender status" for the first one or two drug felonies before the age of 24. Again, they aren't "on the record", so they "don't count" for felon status. Then the first "real" drug felony gets probation.

    Finally, an experienced multiple-felon drug dealer finally goes to prison for getting caught for what should be his fifth or sixth time - and when he finally gets what sounds like a substantial sentence, he gets hyper-accelerated "good time" of anywhere from 1/3 to 1/10 of the nominal sentence. That means there are many drug felons who the public thinks has a hefty 10-year sentence, who actually only do one year. The "goodtime" sentence fiction is widespread and is a fraud on the public. But it is ignored in the "our-prisons-are-full-of-victims" pieces.

    It is only after being caught in several sales of crack, meth, ice, heroin, diverted narcotics pharmaceuticals, cocaine powder, X or, yes, sometimes even marijuana, that a drug dealer will finally be off the streets for an appreciable amount of time. It is the dealers who are in prison; who have trafficked in kilos and pounds, and even more, for years. NO ONE who has done nothing more than possess a few joints is in prison. That's a fiction perpetrated by the NORML/hempsters. And it's being repeated here.

    So debate it fully. But don't massage the facts.

  • ||

    at todays prices, the Afghan farmer can make more money growing various grains. The problem is they are apt to be carpet bombed by "free wheat" from Europe or the USA.

  • ||

    OTOH, police/prosecutors are hardly trying to pare down charges to exactly what they can show happened. All sorts of extra charges get tacked on for various reasons (bargaining position, forfeiture,etc..).

  • ||

    Possession of any amount of any drug should be a mandatory death sentence. THAT will solve the drug problem.

  • greenferret||

    It's time to end the failed, destructive policy of marijuana prohibition.
    Tell Obama and your elected representatives that marijuana should be legalized and taxed: http://tinyurl.com/LegalizeTaxIt

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