Who'll lead on drugs, bloated prisons?

Will America's ill-starred “war on drugs” and its expanding prison culture make it into the presidential campaign?

Standard wisdom says “no way.”

We may have the world's highest rate of incarceration – with only 5 percent of global population, 25 percent of prisoners worldwide. We may be throwing hundreds of thousands of nonviolent drug offenders, many barely of age, behind bars – one reason a stunning one out of every 100 Americans is now imprisoned. We may have created a huge “prison-industrial complex” of prison builders, contractors and swollen criminal justice bureaucracies.

Costs affecting other needs

Federal, state and local outlays for law enforcement and incarceration are costing, according to a Senate committee estimate, a stunning $200 billion annually, siphoning off funds from enterprises that actually build our future: universities, schools, health, infrastructure.

We are reaping the whirlwind of “get tough” on crime statutes ranging from “three strikes you're in” to mandatory sentences to reincarcerating recent prisoners for minor parole violations. And every year we're seeing hundreds of thousands of convicts leave prison with scant chances of being employed, no right to vote, no access to public housing, high levels of addiction, illiteracy and mental illness. Overwhelmed by the odds against them, at least 50 percent get rearrested within two years.

A serious set of problems, a shadow over our national future? No doubt. But do our politicians talk much about alternatives? No way – they typically find it too risky to be attacked as “soft on crime.”

But let's imagine – what if major party nominees Barack Obama and John McCain were pressed to state their positions on drugs and incarceration? I've combed through statements by both. My early reading is that with McCain, there'd be a thin chance of reform. But under Obama, much brighter prospects.

It is true that both men favored – Obama actually co-sponsored – the federal Second Chance Act, passed this year, which provides up to $360 million to support job training, mentors and counseling for former inmates.

But McCain has been routinely “hawkish” on drug policy, endorsing higher penalties for drug-selling, supporting the death penalty for drug kingpins, and opposing any softening of laws forbidding marijuana use, which he characterizes as a dangerous “gateway drug.”

Obama, by contrast, expresses serious concern that at 2 million-plus inmates, “we have by far the largest prison population, per capita, of any place on earth.” He endorses full justice and imprisonment for dangerous criminals but a far more nuanced approach to drug cases in particular.

“Anybody who sees the devastating impact of the drug trade in the inner cities, or the methamphetamine trade in rural communities, knows that this is a huge problem,” he recently told a Rolling Stone interviewer. “I believe in shifting the paradigm, shifting the model, so that we can focus on a more public-health approach.”

During the primary season Obama spoke with special concern about nonviolent drug offenders, many as young as 18 to 20: “The worst thing we can do is to lock them up for a long period of time, without any education if they're functionally illiterate, without any skills or training. They're now convicted felons” – perhaps 25 or 26 years old – “out on the streets and can't be hired by anybody.”

His conclusion: The more focus put on diversion programs, drug courts, treatment of substance abusers, and “encourage training and skills and literacy … the more effective we are in reducing recidivism rates.”

Obama is clearly not yet willing to discuss lifting prohibitions on marijuana or other drugs. But he would seem open to lead the country in a serious debate about our drug and incarceration policies – a dramatic break from recent presidencies, both Republican and Democratic.

Nation needs serious talk

Arguably, that's precisely the discussion the nation needs. America's prisoner total has tripled over the last two decades, with systems bursting at the seams – California, for example, at 175 percent of capacity, Alabama at 200 percent. Yet North Carolina anticipates 1,000 more prisoners a year, Pennsylvania 1,500, Arizona 2,200, Florida 3,000.

Small wonder major prisoner re-entry and diversion facilities for less serious offenders are being set up in Kansas, Michigan, Georgia and other states. California this November votes on a landmark “nonviolent offender rehabilitation” initiative designed to divert thousands from the state's bloated $10-billion-a-year prison system.

It's high time, says Georgia Corrections Commissioner Jim Donald, “to differentiate between those offenders we are ‘afraid of' and those we are just ‘mad at.'”

Talk about a serious national issue on which we could use some presidential leadership – not dictating precise answers, but moving us to debate alternatives. It's been 20 years since drugs and prisons have even been mentioned in the televised presidential debates. Maybe not just Obama but McCain too could surprise us with some fresh ideas and promise of leadership as president. But we probably won't hear this unless reporters press the issue.