Drug Policy

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

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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.]