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Sen. Jim Webb (D, VA)
If I had to guess, I'd say that Gil Kerlikowske is going to pull a John Roberts in his confirmation


Senators Get Smart on Criminal Justice Just in Time for Kerlikowske's Confirmation Hearings

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Sen. Jim Webb (D, VA)
If I had to guess, I'd say that Gil Kerlikowske is going to pull a John Roberts in his confirmation hearing (scheduled to begin on Wednesday) and stick to bland, uncontroversial statements in order to ease his passage. It's pretty much a given that some Senator will use Seattle's policies during Kerlikowske's tenure as the opportunity to spout something stupid on the need to crack down harder etc.

What's been missing, generally, is someone who will take a full-fledged position in the other direction, comprehensively outlining the Drug War's failures and pushing for a big shift towards rational policy. The rhetoric has improved, no doubt, as people have begun to recognize the importance of treatment. But we don't often hear things like this:

America's criminal justice system has deteriorated to the point that it is a national disgrace... With five percent of the world's population, our country houses twenty-five percent of the world's prison population...And four times as many mentally ill people are in prisons than in mental health hospitals.

The elephant in the bedroom in many discussions on the criminal justice system is the sharp increase in drug incarceration over the past three decades. In 1980, we had 41,000 drug offenders in prison; today we have more than 500,000, an increase of 1,200%...[A] significant percentage of those incarcerated are for possession or nonviolent offenses stemming from drug addiction and those sorts of related behavioral issues...

In many cases these issues involve people's ability to have proper counsel and other issues, but there are stunning statistics with respect to drugs that we all must come to terms with. African-Americans are about 12% of our population; contrary to a lot of thought and rhetoric, their drug use rate in terms of frequent drug use rate is about the same as all other elements of our society, about 14%. But they end up being 37% of those arrested on drug charges, 59% of those convicted, and 74% of those sentenced to prison...

Those are statements made by Virginia Senator Jim Webb (D) in introducing his comprehensive criminal justice reform bill last week. Unfortunately, he's not on the Senate Judiciary Committee. (Neither is Patty Murray, who is also a co-sponsor.)

But his chief co-sponsor, Arlen Specter (R, PA), is, as are co-sponsors Ron Wyden (D, Or), Chuck Schumer (D, NY), and Patrick Leahy, (D, NH). All except Wyden are known for their long-windedness, grandstanding, and willingness to make theater of hearings (see, e.g., Specter's many forays into the world of sports), so maybe the tide has shifted enough that we'll see Kerlikowske pushed even further towards a rational drug policy.

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