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Out of Respect for Human Decency, Obama Should End the Drug War

This is the right political moment for Obama to enact major progressive reforms in all avenues of the drug war and our justice system.

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Obama has yet to name a permanent drug czar. (He named Ed Jurith, a long-time ONDCP bureaucrat, its acting director, but Jurith is widely considered a temporary placeholder.) Much of the speculation has centered around former Seattle cop chief Gil Kerlikowske.

Because of the influence of the drug czar on federal policies, LEAP’s Cole says that it is unlikely that Obama will have the political will or backing to recognize that “prohibition has always failed.”

“Every two weeks, for the last 20 years, the U.S. has built the equivalent of 900 prison beds,” he says. “Still, our prisons are bursting at the seams. Over the last 38 years, we’ve had a cumulative arrest record of 39 million arrests for nonviolent drug offenses. When are we going to say, ‘Enough!’?”

The big question is how much concern the Obama administration will ultimately show for people ensnared in the criminal justice system. And what of the plight of prisoners, who collectively constitute the nation’s most vulnerable, least-educated, sickest, poorest, mentally ill and socially castigated individuals?

Reformers say they hope the new administration and Congress will take a cue from the U.S. Sentencing Commission, which is examining ways to alleviate massive national jail and prison overcrowding through sentencing alternatives, drug treatment and support for increased judicial discretion. The commission plans to make its recommendations in May.

During the June 28, 2007, Democratic debate, Obama stood his ground on the need for ongoing criminal justice reform by emphasizing that the system “is not color blind. It does not work for all people equally.”

It remains to be seen how far Obama’s vision for reform will extend and whether it will shine toward the darkest corners of prison cells, far out of sight and therefore all too easily out of mind.

Silja J.A. Talvi is an investigative journalist and the author of Women Behind Bars: The Crisis of Women in the U.S. Prison System (Seal Press: 2007). Her work has already appeared in many book anthologies, including It's So You (Seal Press, 2007), Prison Nation (Routledge: 2005), Prison Profiteers (The New Press: 2008), and Body Outlaws (Seal Press: 2004). She is a senior editor at In These Times.

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