Upon the release of the abovementioned report, the WP’s Emily Badger gives a concise overview of our country’s unhealthy addiction to incarceration (white collar criminals notwithstanding, of course.) “The ‘war on drugs’…also ensured that drug crimes received more attention from police and harsher punishment in courtrooms…As a result, between 1980 and 2010, the incarceration rate for drug crimes increased tenfold.”
A day before the big show, Joshua Keating’s consistently funny If It Happened There column at Slate looked at the State of the Union. “Members of the opposition typically do not applaud, though they occasionally join in with approval of paeans to the nation’s powerful military, the leaders of which typically sit stone-faced in front of the gallery.”
Which, of course, is exactly what happened. There are innumerable things Congress could be doing right now to create jobs, spur opportunity, expand the frontiers of knowledge, and generally make life better for families in America. Some of them — raising the minimum wage, ensuring equal pay for women, investing in infrastructure and early childhood education, admitting climate change is happening and proceeding accordingly — were even mentioned in Obama’s remarks, not that we can expect much in Year Six of this presidency (and an election year to boot.)
But with all due respect to Sgt. Remsburg’s sacrifice, when the only thing all of our nation’s legislators can get effusive about is venerating Americans wounded in battle, the republic is in a bad way indeed. As James Fallows put it: “[W]hile that moment reflected limitless credit on Sgt. Remsburg…I don’t think the sustained ovation reflected well on the America of 2014…the spectacle should make most Americans uneasy.” That it should – The last refuge of scoundrels and all that.
ICYMI, If It Happened There has aptly covered the Superbowl also. “The ethics of such an event can be hard for outsiders to understand. Fans, who regularly watch players being carted off the field with crippling injuries, are unbothered by reports of the game’s lasting medical impact on its players. Nevertheless, fans and the national media can become extremely indignant if players are excessively boastful at the game’s conclusion.”
Speaking of the handegg finals — as usual, also not lacking for tawdry paeans to militarism — congrats to the Seahawks on a convincing Superbowl XLVIII win. As I said on Twitter, I had no real dog in this fight – I was just happy to see the two states with sane marijuana laws karmically rewarded for their forward thinking.
As a follow-up to this post, Gallup finds that support for legalizing marijuana has shot up to 58%, following a similar pattern as gay marriage in recent years. Again, if they want to mitigate the usual midterm electorate problem, Dems should follow the Rove playbook on this, and get weed on the 2014 ballots ASAP.
Yet another for the Hope-and-Change file: Obama’s DOJ urges the Courts to keep prisoners convicted under outdated sentencing requirements in jail, because…because…well, it’s hard to fathom, really. “For several years, federal judges have done nothing to remedy this injustice; one famously concluded that the prisoners sentenced under the old law had simply ‘lost on a temporal roll of the cosmic dice”. So, there are American citizens serving tens of thousands of years in prison because, according to all three branches of government, it’s just their tough luck?”
If you’re keeping score at home, folks, Obama’s Department of Justice has basically said at this point that whistleblowers and non-violent drug offenders should get the book thrown at them, but economy-toppling banksters and torturers should walk free. Yessir, they’re really speaking truth-to-power over at DOJ these days. What a courageous bunch.
In The Guardian Jill Filipovic examines the national shame that is our private prison-industrial complex. “Imprisoning that many people, most of them for non-violent offenses, doesn’t come cheap, especially when you’re paying private contractors…who are doing quite well living off of American corporate welfare -– at the expense of the American taxpayer.” $50 billion a year — that funds a lot of stadium.
This article was found, by the way, in Slate‘s discussion of Sesame Street’s new incarceration kit, which helps explain to 3-8-year-olds that their parent has gone to jail. “That this even has to exist in the first place shows how much pointless damage our prison system does not just to people who are caught up in the overly punitive, often racially biased justice system, but also to their families.”
It’d be nice to say this fiasco is on the national agenda, but, Jim Webb’s efforts in 2009 and some green shoots earlier in the year notwithstanding, Congress and the Obama administration, for all their talk of belt-tightening, seem pretty content with this ridiculous status quo. (One key reason: felons can’t vote.) But, hey, you know who they still don’t put in jail these days? Wolves of Wall Street. So there’s that.
More fruits from Californication: With public support for legalizing marijuana over 50% for the first time, and a new documentary, The House I Live In, once again calling attention to the many cruel absurdities of the Drug War — $1 trillion spent, 2.2 million in prison — signs suggest the ill-advised War on Drugs may finally be receding as a sacrosanct institution in Washington.
“For decades, the politics of the drug war were straightforward: Being tough could help at the polls and came with no political downside; being open to reform had few advantages, but would be used against a candidate on the campaign trail. That calculation is no longer so simple.”
Our culture veers even closer to self-parody upon the news that Florida Atlantic University will name its stadium after a private prison conglomerate. “GEO Group reported revenues in excess of $1.6 billion in 2011, income generated mostly from state and federal prisons and detention centers for illegal immigrants.”
What the?! Honestly, how shameful is it that we ostensible lovers of freedom — mainly on account of our ridiculous incarceration rates (for anything other than white-collar crimes) — not only have a private, for-profit prison industry flourishing in our country — one that routinely maintains substandard prisons and undercuts workers’ wages by outsourcing their captive labor force — but that we’re sufficiently unembarrassed about it to start naming stadiums after them? Pathetic.
Update: FAU students make their displeasure known.
I saw this a few weeks ago, and Follow me Here reminded me of it: As we pass the fortieth anniversary of the failed war on drugs, Wire creator David Simon makes a deal with Attorney General Eric Holder: End the drug war for a Wire season six. As if there weren’t already enough good reasons to do so, S6 would be the cherry on top.
I’ve been meaning to blog this for a few days, via Genehack: After the show is harangued by Baltimore’s current police commissioner, the consistently take-no-guff David Simon sticks up for his creation, The Wire. “As citizens using a fictional narrative as a means of arguing different priorities or policies, those who created and worked on The Wire have dissented.“
Oh yes, it is: Delving into the exit poll numbers for California, Robert Cruickshank points out how the GOP have staked their territory on ground that is fast eroding. “[T]here’s really no evidence that the 2010 election portends long-term doom for Democrats. Instead it is Republicans who are in trouble. They won by appealing to a shrinking group of people who are determined to hog democracy and prosperity for themselves at the exclusion of the young and the nonwhite.” In other words, demography is destiny, and, when it comes to the GOP, to paraphrase the Peppers, even a tidal wave can’t save them all from Californication.
Speaking of Golden State politics: Unfortunately, Prop 19, which decriminalized marijuana usage, also went down to defeat. (A victim of the older midterm electorate, it still pulled more votes than any Republican in the state.) That being said, the die has been cast now — it’s only a matter of time. “‘There’s a fair amount of latent support for legalization in California,’ said Anna Greenberg…’It is our view, looking at this research, that if indeed legalization goes on ballot in 2012 in California, that it is poised to win.”
“Our nearly century-long experiment in banning marijuana has failed as abysmally as Prohibition did, and California may now be pioneering a saner approach.” In very related news, the NYT’s Nick Kristof makes a case for Prop 19. “One advantage of our federal system is that when we have a failed policy, we can grope for improvements by experimenting at the state level. I hope California will lead the way on Tuesday by legalizing marijuana.” (Note also the example of Portugal, as studied by Glenn Greenwald.)
“‘There are only two possibilities here,’ Mr. Webb said in introducing his bill, noting that America imprisons so many more people than other countries. ‘Either we have the most evil people on earth living in the United States, or we are doing something dramatically wrong in terms of how we approach the issue of criminal justice.‘”
In his latest column, the NYT’s Nicholas Kristof makes the case anew for comprehensive criminal justice reform. “[O]ver all, in a time of limited resources, we’re overinvesting in prisons and underinvesting in schools. Indeed, education spending may reduce the need for incarceration…Above all, it’s time for a rethink of our drug policy.” (Via Sententiae.)
“Having fought the war on drugs, we know that ending the drug war is the right thing to do — for all of us, especially taxpayers.” In the WP, two longtime Baltimore cops once again lay out the case for drug decriminalization. “Legalization would not create a drug free-for-all. In fact, regulation reins in the mess we already have. If prohibition decreased drug use and drug arrests acted as a deterrent, America would not lead the world in illegal drug use and incarceration for drug crimes.” See also: Prohibition.
“‘The commission could be the most ambitious attempt to re-examine and reform the criminal justice system since the 1960s,’ said Mark Mauer, executive director of the Sentencing Project, a nonprofit group that supports reducing incarceration rates. ‘It is a huge undertaking,’ he said.” As he promised a few months ago, Sen. Jim Webb begins the push for a bipartisan commission on prison reform. (Webb’s effort drew particular kudos from Salon‘s Glenn Greenwald this morning.)
Speaking of which, count me among the many (like Greenwald) who found Obama’s glib answer on drug decriminalization during the online town hall the other day to be too smug and snickering by half. People are spending their lives in prison for basically harmless behavior that he — and countless other tsk-tsking political elites — engaged in. That’s not really something to chuckle about.
That being said, it’s obvious that, with everything else going on, Obama has nowhere near the political capital he would need to deal with this sort of thing right now, even if he does possess the inclination. But, Webb’s proposed commission might be exactly the sort of body that could grant Obama the cover he needs to get serious about drug and prison reform. In fact, other than punting on a popular issue like social security, which prison reform emphatically isn’t, that’s pretty much the sole purpose of a bipartisan commission.
Update: In very related news, NY Gov. David Paterson announces a deal has been struck to soften NY’s draconian Rockefeller drug laws and get rid of many mandatory minimums. “‘Since 1973, New York has had the harshest drug laws in the country, and they have simply not worked,’ Paterson said Friday in a radio interview.”
“‘I feel very strongly we have a co-responsibility,’ Clinton told reporters accompanying her to Mexico City a day after the Obama administration said it would send more money, technology and manpower to secure the Southwestern frontier and help Mexico battle the cartels.” During a visit to our ailing neighbor, Secretary of State Clinton admits American culpability in the exacerbating of Mexico’s drug war. “‘Our insatiable demand for illegal drugs fuels the drug trade,’ she said. ‘Our inability to prevent weapons from being illegally smuggled across the border to arm these criminals causes the deaths of police officers, soldiers and civilians… Clearly, what we have been doing has not worked and it is unfair for our incapacity… to be creating a situation where people are holding the Mexican government and people responsible,’ she said.’That’s not right.’“
Well, cheers to Sec. Clinton for being honest about some of the causes of Mexico’s escalating drug violence. Still, in pledging tighter borders, more troops, yadda yadda yadda, she and the administration are still dancing around one of the more obvious solutions to the problem.
“Marijuana is California’s largest cash crop. It’s valued at $14 billion annually, or nearly twice the value of the state’s grape and vegetable crops combined, according to government statistics…But the state doesn’t receive any revenue from its cash cow. Instead, it spends billions of dollars enforcing laws pegged at shutting down the industry and inhibiting marijuana’s adherents.” Also in Slate: In the wake of California’s money troubles, Daniel Gross makes the economic case for marijuana decriminalization.
“So what are the numbers? A national legalization effort would save nearly $13 billion annually in enforcement costs and bring in $7 billion in yearly tax revenues, according to a study by Harvard University economist Jeffrey Miron…That doesn’t include any indirect revenues as, for example, rural farming communities grow or marijuana tourism, which has been lucrative for the Netherlands, takes off.“
The obvious economic benefits aside, it’s well nigh time to establish a sane drug policy in this country. And weed in particular is an easy call. We haven’t had a drug-free American president since 1992 (at best), and yet we still pretend that a goofball like Michael Phelps ripping bong hits is some sort of egregious sin? Time to grow up, people.
“I think you can be a law-and-order leader and still understand that the criminal justice system as we understand it today is broken, unfair, locking up the wrong people in many cases and not locking up the right person in many cases.” In an auspicious sign for 2009, Sen. Jim Webb (D-VA) announces he’ll be taking at stab at criminal justice and prison reform in the coming year. “Webb aims much of his criticism at enforcement efforts that he says too often target low-level drug offenders and parole violators, rather than those who perpetrate violence, such as gang members. He also blames policies that strip felons of citizenship rights and can hinder their chances of finding a job after release.“
It sounds like he’s on the right track, and bully to Sen. Webb for even taking this issue — normally not one that brings in the votes — on. (Let’s hope Webb knows his Wire.)
Of course, a lot of headway could be made if we just started taking a saner approach to drugs in this country, i.e. unclogging the justice system of non-violent drug offenders and doing away with mandatory minimums. From there, I hope Sen. Webb sets his sights on the shameful and grotesque private, for-profit prison industry that has sprouted here in America. I for one believe running an unsafe, substandard prison and getting rich by outsourcing your supply of “captive” laborers to corporations that don’t want to pay market wages is much more immoral and criminal behavior than getting high in some fashion and being unlucky (and/or black) enough to get caught. And I don’t think I’m in the minority in this assessment anymore.
“The meeting was an error in judgment that will not be repeated, and I am sorry for it.” Clinton consigliere and inveterate torturer of reason Mark Penn gets into trouble for playing both sides of a Colombian trade deal, is forced to apologize, and subsequently gets sacked by the nation in question. If only Sen. Clinton had followed Colombia’s example months ago, she might still have a shot at the presidency right now.
In related news, Al Giordano of Rural Votes explains why Colombian president Alvaro Uribe is rooting against Obama, and why that speaks strongly in the Illinois Senator’s favor. “The Uribe regime, after all, continues a chummy friendship with Bill Clinton, granting him the government’s ‘Colombia Is Passion’ Award last June. That, during the same 2007 spring when former vice president Al Gore cancelled his appearance at a Miami environmental conference because he did not want to share a podium with Uribe, the hemisphere’s poster boy for state-sponsored terrorism, narco-trafficking, and assassinations of opposition political, labor and social movement leaders.“
Fare thee well gone away, there’s nothing left to say. Pour a glass of Jamesons and give the devil (way down in the hole) his due: The Wire, a television show with a better claim than most to the title of “Best Ever” (and definitely the best show ever made about American politics), ends this evening. As such, before one last Sunday round with the men and women of Baltimore, some links from the vault:
And you know the only thing better than having enjoyed all 60 hours of the show? Having never seen it at all. If that’s you, pick up Season 1 and start from the beginning — you’re in for a real treat.
Update: “The main theme is that…it’s a newspaper that is so eviscerated, so worn, so devoid of veterans, so consumed by the wrong things, and so denied the ability to replenish itself that it singularly misses every single story in the season.” The final episode has aired, and David Simon has emerged from behind the curtain for a last round of interviews. “By the way, if you want to not focus on what the fuck’s going on, read the newspapers. Suffer the journalism, and don’t worry: the big picture will elude you nicely.“
“‘She’s in big trouble and she knows it,’ a top Democratic operative and Hillary Clinton booster told the newspaper.” As the GOP debate again and the Dems prep for their last face-off before the January 3rd Iowa caucus, a new poll finds Obama is now statistically tied with Clinton in New Hampshire. “Clinton is now at 31 percent to Obama’s 30 percent. New Hampshire’s primary is set for January 8. Clinton’s 5-percentage point drop appears to have been largely due to the loss of support among women.” Nationally, however, the story is quite different, with Clinton still enjoying a huge lead over Obama, 53-23%. But, after an Iowa/NH bounce, who knows?
Update: As a reflection of how tight things have gotten in the Granite State, NH Clinton campaign co-director Billy Shaheen dabbles in drug hysteria in an attempt to tarnish Obama’s potential electability. It should be remembered that Shaheen, husband of former NH Governor Jeanne Shaheen, is the same “statesman” who slung (real) mud at Bob Kerrey and called him a “cripple” during the 2000 primaries, back when he ran Gore’s NH operation (the same campaign that eventually connived a traffic jam on I-93 to prevent Bradley voters from getting to the polls.) The fact that this inveterate asshole is not only working for but running the Clinton camp in NH only further diminishes her campaign in my eyes.
Update 2: “I deeply regret the comments I made today and they were not authorized by the campaign in any way.” Shaheen retracts his statement, and the Clinton campaign says he was operating solo. But the seed’s out there now, right? Pathetic. Whether this gutterball ploy was intended or not, I hope it backfires massively. Update 3: Sheehan resigns. Good riddance.
One of the staples of the failed drug war, mandatory minimums take two substantial hits as the Supreme Court decides 7-2 in favor of judicial discretion in a pair of drug cases, Kimbrough v. U.S. and Gall v. U.S. “Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel A. Alito Jr. dissented in both cases.”
“All told, the United States has spent an estimated $500 billion to fight drugs – with very little to show for it. Cocaine is now as cheap as it was when Escobar died and more heavily used. Methamphetamine, barely a presence in 1993, is now used by 1.5 million Americans and may be more addictive than crack. We have nearly 500,000 people behind bars for drug crimes – a twelvefold increase since 1980 – with no discernible effect on the drug traffic. Virtually the only success the government can claim is the decline in the number of Americans who smoke marijuana – and even on that count, it is not clear that federal prevention programs are responsible. In the course of fighting this war, we have allowed our military to become pawns in a civil war in Colombia and our drug agents to be used by the cartels for their own ends. Those we are paying to wage the drug war have been accused of human-rights abuses in Peru, Bolivia and Colombia. In Mexico, we are now repeating many of the same mistakes we have made in the Andes.“
To their credit, those left-wing hippie radicals at National Review said as much way back in 1996, and HBO’s The Wire has dramatized the dismal consequences of the conflict for several years now. Now, coming to the same dour conclusion in 2007, Rolling Stone‘s Ben Wallace-Wells explains how America lost the War on Drugs, and argues that continuing to perpetuate it in its current fashion — with its “law and order” emphases of crushing supply, international interdiction, and mandatory minimum sentencing — is tantamount to flushing money and lives down the toilet. “Even by conservative estimates, the War on Drugs now costs the United States $50 billion each year and has overcrowded prisons to the breaking point – all with little discernible impact on the drug trade…The real radicals of the War on Drugs are not the legalization advocates, earnestly preaching from the fringes, but the bureaucrats — the cops and judges and federal agents who are forced into a growing acceptance that rendering a popular commodity illegal, and punishing those who sell it and use it, has simply overwhelmed the capacity of government.” (Found via Jack Shafer’s endorsement at Slate.)
“‘The American Republic is in remnant status,’ he says. ‘The stage is set for our country eventually devolving into military dictatorship, and few seem to care.’” Remember, remember the 5th of November? The Ron Paulies do, raising over $4 million in one day for their man (with help from this site) to commemorate Guy Fawkes Day. “Mr. Benton clarified that Mr. Paul did not support blowing up government buildings. ‘He wants to demolish things like the Department of Education,’ Mr. Benton said, ‘but we can do that very peacefully, in a constructive manner.’” (Just to clarify, however much sense Paul makes occasionally on issues like the Wars on terror and drugs, I find him mostly wrongheaded and frightening.)
“This final season of the show, Simon told me, will be about ‘perception versus reality’ — in particular, what kind of reality newspapers can capture and what they can’t. Newspapers across the country are shrinking, laying off beat reporters who understood their turf. More important, Simon believes, newspapers are fundamentally not equipped to convey certain kinds of complex truths. Instead, they focus on scandals — stories that have a clean moral. ‘It’s like, Find the eight-hundred-dollar toilet seat, find the contractor who’s double-billing,’ Simon said at one point. ‘That’s their bread and butter. Systemic societal failure that has multiple problems — newspapers are not designed to understand it.“
A huge find by way of Chris at Do You Feel Loved?: Margaret Talbot offers a long-form New Yorker profile on David Simon and The Wire. (If you haven’t yet seen Season 4, I recommend bookmarking this for now — it gives away many of S4′s major beats.) There’s also a good deal of spoilerish information on what to expect from Season 5, what David Simon wants to do next, and who’s singing this season’s version of “Way Down in the Hole.” (I’ll give that one away…Bubbles’ sponsor, Steve Earle — listen here.) “Simon makes it clear that the show’s ambitions were grand. ‘”The Wire” is dissent,’ he says. ‘It is perhaps the only storytelling on television that overtly suggests that our political and economic and social constructs are no longer viable, that our leadership has failed us relentlessly, and that no, we are not going to be all right.’”
“‘Conservatives got everything they could reasonably have hoped for out of the term,’ said Thomas C. Goldstein, a Washington lawyer who specializes in Supreme Court litigation.” Proving the crucial importance of the Alito-O’Connor switch (and, I’ll continue to maintain as my answer to Emily Bazelon’s line of questioning, the 2004 election), the Roberts Court flexed its muscle in depressing fashion this week, voting 5-4 (as feared) not only to gut the McCain-Feingold act in the name of “free speech” but also — seriously, no lie — to partially roll back Brown v. Board of Education. (In another well-reported case, the majority’s inordinate fear of bongs trumped this stalwart commitment to free speech.) So, if you’re keeping score, Roberts, Alito, Scalia, Thomas, and Kennedy came down like this: money good, corruption good, drug hysteria good; clean politics bad, youthful irony bad, integration bad. Oh, wonderful. Suddenly, the announcement that the Court will take a look at the Guantanamo cases doesn’t sound so appetizing. Update: Slate‘s slate of legal observers discuss.
“Given the State Department’s $32 billion budget, an additional $1 million for food hardly ranks as a major scandal. But this tangled tale of how an Alaskan tribal company ended up in a South American tropical forest sheds an illuminating spotlight on the often-secretive world of federal contracting, an area of government rife with abuse and poor oversight.” Our government in action: Salon‘s Michael Scherer explains how Alaskan Eskimos won a no-bid contract to feed cocaine-fighting Bolivians, with the help of Senator “Bridge to Nowhere,” Ted Stevens. Here’s a hint: Halliburton is involved.
Newly released — and somewhat controversial — FBI files, dating from the former Chief Justice’s two confirmation battles in 1971 and 1986, disclose that William Rehnquist battled a painkiller addiction in the early ’80s while serving on the Court. “Doctors interviewed by the FBI told agents that when the associate justice stopped taking the drug, he suffered paranoid delusions. One doctor said Rehnquist thought he heard voices outside his hospital room plotting against him and had ‘bizarre ideas and outrageous thoughts,’ including imagining ‘a CIA plot against him’ and ‘seeming to see the design patterns on the hospital curtains change configuration.’ At one point, a doctor told the investigators, Rehnquist went ‘to the lobby in his pajamas in order to try to escape.’“
Regarding ballot initiatives, it was a bad night for same-sex marriage and marijuana decriminalization. Still, there’s cause for hope around the country in the six state minimum-wage hikes that passed, as well as the repudiation of the stringent abortion law in South Dakota (Justice Kennedy: take note.) Speaking of the Court, its eminent domain decision of last year took a beating in nine states, although California, Idaho, and Washington thankfully repudiated stronger measures that would effectively hobble any kind of federal land regulation.