Senator Webb’s National Criminal Justice Commission Act of 2009 Gathers Support

Since Senator Webb introduced the National Criminal Justice Commission Act of 2009 last Thursday, the bipartisan measure has already garnered wide support from Senate leadership, the Senate Judiciary Committee, and the Obama Administration. He has heard from Supreme Court Justice Kennedy, prosecutors, judges, defense lawyers, former offenders, people in prison, and police on the street.”

“And, following are some notable editorials supporting the effort—from a highly diverse group of news outlets:

New York Times: “Reviewing Criminal Justice,” March 30, 2009

New York Times: “Senator Webb’s Call for Prison Reform,” January 1, 2009

U.S. News and World Report: “James Webb Shows Leadership Regarding Prison Reform,” January 2, 2009

Salon.comJim Webb’s courage v. the “pragmatism” excuse for politicians,” March 30, 2009

The Nation: “Senator Webb’s Act of Strength,” February 12, 2009

The Lynchburg News & Advance: “Webb Takes on Politics’ Third Rail: Prison Reform,” March 29, 2009

DC Examiner: “Sen. Webb pushes prison reform,” March 29, 2009

Daily Press: “Go After the Real Problem,” March 31, 2009

Virginian Pilot: “Senator elevates debate on failed drug, prison policies,” October 18, 2008

Roanoke Times: “A Sensible Call for Sentencing Reform,” October 2008

 

Reviewing Criminal Justice

New York Times editorial

March 30, 2009

America ‘s criminal justice system needs repair. Prisons are overcrowded, sentencing policies are uneven and often unfair, ex-convicts are poorly integrated into society, and the growing problem of gang violence has not received the attention it deserves. For these and other reasons, a bill introduced last week by Senator Jim Webb , Democrat of Virginia, should be given high priority on the Congressional calendar.

The bill, which has strong bipartisan support, would establish a national commission to review the system from top to bottom. It is long overdue, and should be up and running as soon as possible.

The United States has the highest reported incarceration rate in the world. More than 1 in 100 adults are now behind bars, for the first time in history. The incarceration rate has been rising faster than the crime rate, driven by harsh sentencing policies like ”three strikes and you’re out,” which impose long sentences that are often out of proportion to the seriousness of the offense.

Keeping people in prison who do not need to be there is not only unjust but also enormously expensive, which makes the problem a priority right now. Hard-pressed states and localities that reduce prison costs will have more money to help the unemployed, avert layoffs of teachers and police officers, and keep hospitals operating. In the last two decades, according to a Pew Charitable Trusts report, state corrections spending soared 127 percent, while spending on higher education increased only 21 percent.

Meanwhile, as governments waste money putting the wrong people behind bars, gang activity has been escalating, accounting for as much as 80 percent of the crime in some parts of the country.

The commission would be made up of recognized criminal justice experts, and charged with examining a range of policies that have emerged haphazardly across the country and recommending reforms. In addition to obvious problems like sentencing, the commission would bring much-needed scrutiny to issues like the special obstacles faced by the mentally ill in the system, as well as the shameful problem of prison violence.

Prison management and inmate treatment need special attention now that the Prison Litigation Reform Act has drastically scaled back prisoners’ ability to vindicate their rights in court. Indeed, the commission should consider recommending that the law be modified or repealed.

Mr. Webb has enlisted the support of not only the Senate’s top-ranking Democrats, including the majority leader, Harry Reid, but also influential Republicans like Arlen Specter, the ranking minority member on the Judiciary Committee, and Lindsey Graham, the ranking member of the crime and drugs subcommittee.

There is no companion bill in the House, and one needs to be written. Judging by the bipartisan support in the Senate, a national consensus has emerged that the criminal justice system is broken.

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Sen. Webb’s Call for Prison Reform

The New York Times Editorial

January 1, 2009

This country puts too many people behind bars for too long. Most elected officials, afraid of being tarred as soft on crime, ignore these problems. Sen. Jim Webb , a Democrat of Virginia, is now courageously stepping into the void, calling for a national commission to re-assess criminal justice policy. Other members of Congress should show the same courage and rally to the cause.

The United States has the world’s highest reported incarceration rate. Although it has less than 5 percent of the world’s population, it has almost one-quarter of the world’s prisoners. And for the first time in history, more than 1 in 100 American adults are behind bars.

Many inmates are serving long sentences for nonviolent crimes, including minor drug offenses. It also is extraordinarily expensive. Billions of dollars now being spent on prisons each year could be used in far more socially productive ways.

Senator Webb — a former Marine and secretary of the Navy in the Reagan administration — is in many ways an unlikely person to champion criminal justice reform. But his background makes him an especially effective advocate for a cause that has often been associated with liberals and academics.

In his two years in the Senate, Mr. Webb has held hearings on the cost of mass incarceration and on the criminal justice system’s response to the problems of illegal drugs. He also has called attention to the challenges of prisoner re-entry and of the need to provide released inmates, who have paid their debts to society, more help getting jobs and resuming productive lives.

Mr. Webb says he intends to introduce legislation to create a national commission to investigate these issues. With Barack Obama in the White House, and strong Democratic majorities in Congress, the political climate should be more favorable than it has been in years. And the economic downturn should make both federal and state lawmakers receptive to the idea of reforming a prison system that is as wasteful as it is inhumane.

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James Webb Shows Leadership Regarding Prison Reform

U.S. News & World Report, John Aloysius Farrell

January 2, 2009

Sen. Jim Webb of Virginia has never been afraid to march to the beat of his own drum.

The decorated Vietnam War veteran who served as Secretary of the Navy under Ronald Reagan, then got elected to the Senate as a Democrat in 2006, has his own views on things, and his own way of stating them.

This week, the Washington Post noted how Webb’s spirited support for prison reform is an unlikely cause for a politician from Virginia—which was known for much of the past 20 years as a get tough, hang-’em-high state when it came to criminal offenders. For a time, the commonwealth was right up there with Texas for its willingness to assign, and execute, the death penalty. I cannot imagine the issue of prison reform will win him many votes.

Webb raised the issue in the book on politics he released last year, during the subsequent promotion tour, and as the keynote speaker for a Brookings Institution forum on the topic in December. I can’t do justice to the eloquence with which he makes the case but commend his words to you.

Webb should be congratulated. For those of us in Washington who sometimes forget what it looks like, this is called leadership.

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Jim Webb‘s courage v. the “pragmatism” excuse for politicians

Glenn Greenwald, Salon.com

March 28, 2009

There are few things rarer than a major politician doing something that is genuinely courageous and principled, but Jim Webb ‘s impassioned commitment to fundamental prison reform is exactly that.  Webb’s interest in the issue was prompted by his work as a journalist in 1984, when he wrote about an American citizen who was locked away in a Japanese prison for two years under extremely harsh conditions for nothing more than marijuana possession.  After decades of mindless “tough-on-crime” hysteria, an increasingly irrational “drug war,” and a sprawling, privatized prison state as brutal as it is counter-productive, America has easily surpassed Japan — and virtually every other country in the world — to become what Brown University Professor Glenn Loury recently described as a “a nation of jailers” whose “prison system has grown into a leviathan unmatched in human history.”

What’s most notable about Webb’s decision to champion this cause is how honest his advocacy is.  He isn’t just attempting to chip away at the safe edges of America ‘s oppressive prison state.  His critique of what we’re doing is fundamental, not incremental.  And, most important of all, Webb is addressing head-on one of the principal causes of our insane imprisonment fixation:  our aberrational insistence on criminalizing and imprisoning non-violent drug offenders (when we’re not doing worse to them).  That is an issue most politicians are petrified to get anywhere near, as evidenced just this week by Barack Obama’s adolescent, condescending snickering when asked about marijuana legalization, in response to which Obama gave a dismissive answer that Andrew Sullivan accurately deemed “pathetic.”  Here are just a few excerpts from Webb’s Senate floor speech this week (.pdf) on his new bill to create a Commission to study all aspects of prison reform:

    Let’s start with a premise that I don’t think a lot of Americans are aware of. We have 5% of the world’s population; we have 25% of the world’s known prison population. We have an incarceration rate in the United States , the world’s greatest democracy, that is five times as high as the average incarceration rate of the rest of the world. There are only two possibilities here: 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. . . .

    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%. The blue disks represent the numbers in 1980; the red disks represent the numbers in 2007 and 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 by the numbers that have been provided by us. . . .

    Another piece of this issue that I hope we will address with this National Criminal Justice Commission is what happens inside our prisons. . . . We also have a situation in this country with respect to prison violence and sexual victimization that is off the charts and we must get our arms around this problem. We also have many people in our prisons who are among what are called the criminally ill, many suffering from hepatitis and HIV who are not getting the sorts of treatment they deserve.

    Importantly, what are we going to do about drug policy – the whole area of drug policy in this country?

    And how does that affect sentencing procedures and other alternatives that we might look at?

Webb added that ” America ‘s criminal justice system has deteriorated to the point that it is a national disgrace” and “we are locking up too many people who do not belong in jail.”

It’s hard to overstate how politically thankless, and risky, is Webb’s pursuit of this issue — both in general and particularly for Webb.  Though there has been some evolution of public opinion on some drug policy issues, there is virtually no meaningful organized constituency for prison reform.  To the contrary, leaving oneself vulnerable to accusations of being “soft on crime” has, for decades, been one of the most toxic vulnerabilities a politician can suffer (ask Michael Dukakis).  Moreover, the privatized Prison State is a booming and highly profitable industry, with an army of lobbyists, donations, and other well-funded weapons for targeting candidates who threaten its interests.

Most notably, Webb is in the Senate not as an invulnerable, multi-term political institution from a safely blue state (he’s not Ted Kennedy), but is the opposite:  he’s a first-term Senator from Virginia, one of the “toughest” “anti-crime” states in the country (it abolished parole in 1995 and is second only to Texas in the number of prisoners it executes), and Webb won election to the Senate by the narrowest of margins, thanks largely to George Allen’s macaca-driven implosion.  As Ezra Klein wrote, with understatement:  “Lots of politicians make their name being anti-crime, which has come to mean pro-punishment. Few make their name being pro-prison reform.” 

For a Senator like Webb to spend his time trumpeting the evils of excessive prison rates, racial disparities in sentencing, the unjust effects of the Drug War, and disgustingly harsh conditions inside prisons is precisely the opposite of what every single political consultant would recommend that he do.  There’s just no plausible explanation for what Webb’s actions other than the fact that he’s engaged in the noblest and rarest of conduct:  advocating a position and pursuing an outcome because he actually believes in it and believes that, with reasoned argument, he can convince his fellow citizens to see the validity of his cause.  And he is doing this despite the fact that it potentially poses substantial risks to his political self-interest and offers almost no prospect for political reward.  Webb is far from perfect — he’s cast some truly bad votes since being elected — but, in this instance, not only his conduct but also his motives are highly commendable.

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Webb’s actions here underscore a broader point.  Our political class has trained so many citizens not only to tolerate, but to endorse, cowardly behavior on the part of their political leaders.  When politicians take bad positions, ones that are opposed by large numbers of their supporters, it is not only the politicians, but also huge numbers of their supporters, who step forward to offer excuses and justifications:  well, they have to take that position because it’s too politically risky not to; they have no choice and it’s the smart thing to do.  That’s the excuse one heard for years as Democrats meekly acquiesced to or actively supported virtually every extremist Bush policy from the attack on Iraq to torture and warrantless eavesdropping; it’s the excuse which even progressives offer for why their political leaders won’t advocate for marriage equality or defense spending cuts; and it’s the same excuse one hears now to justify virtually every Obama “disappointment.”

Webb’s commitment to this unpopular project demonstrates how false that excuse-making is —  just as it was proven false by Russ Feingold’s singular, lonely, October, 2001 vote against the Patriot Act and Feingold’s subsequent, early opposition to the then-popular Bush’s assault on civil liberties, despite his representing the purple state of Wisconsin.  Political leaders have the ability to change public opinion by engaging in leadership and persuasive advocacy.  Any cowardly politician can take only those positions that reside safely within the majoritiarian consensus.  Actual leaders, by definition, confront majoritarian views when they are misguided and seek to change them, and politicians have far more ability to affect and change public opinion than they want the public to believe they have.

The political class wants people to see them as helpless captives to immutable political realities so that they have a permanent, all-purpose excuse for whatever they do, so that they are always able to justify their position by appealing to so-called “political realities.”  But that excuse is grounded in a fundamentally false view of what political leaders are actually capable of doing in terms of shifting public opinion, as NYU Journalism Professor Jay Rosen explained when I interviewed him about his theories of how political consensus is maintained and manipulated:

    GG:  One of the points you make is that it’s not just journalists who define what these spheres [of consensus, legitimate debate and deviance] encompass. You argue that politicians, political actors can change what’s included in these spheres based on the positions that they take. And in some sense, you could even say that that’s kind of what leadership is — not just articulating what already is within the realm of consensus, which anyone can do, but taking ideas that are marginalized or within the sphere of deviance and bringing them into the sphere of legitimacy. How does that process work?  How do political actors change those spheres?

    JR: Well, that’s exactly what leadership is. And I think it’s crippling sometimes to our own sense of efficacy in politics and media, if we assume that the media has all of the power to frame the debate and decide what consensus is, and consign things to deviant status. That’s not really true. That’s true under conditions of political immobilization, leadership default, a rage for normalcy, but in ordinary political life, leaders, by talking about things, make them legitimate. Parties, by pushing for things, make them part of the sphere of debate. Important and visible people can question consensus, and all of a sudden expand it.  These spheres are malleable; if the conversation of democracy is alive and if you make your leaders talk about things, it becomes valid to talk about them.

    And I really do think there’s a self-victimization that sometimes goes on, but to go back to the beginning of your question, there’s something else going on, which is the ability to infect us with notions of what’s realistic is one of the most potent powers press and political elites have. Whenever we make that kind of decision — “well it’s pragmatic, let’s be realistic” — what we’re really doing is we’re speculating about other Americans, our fellow citizens, and what they’re likely to accept or what works on them or what stimuli they respond to. And that way of seeing other Americans, fellow citizens, is in fact something the media has taught us; that is one of the deepest lessons we’ve learned from the media even if we are skeptics of the MSM.

    And one of the things I see on the left that really bothers me is the ease with which people skeptical of the media will talk about what the masses believe and how the masses will be led and moved in this way that shows me that the mass media tutors them on how to see their fellow citizens. And here the Internet again has at least some potential, because we don’t have to guess what those other Americans think. We can encounter them ourselves, and thereby reshape our sense of what they think. I think every time people make that judgment about what’s realistic, what they’re really doing is they’re imagining what the rest of the country would accept, and how other people think, and they get those ideas from the media.

We’ve been trained how we talk about our political leaders primarily by a media that worships political cynicism and can only understand the world through political game-playing.  Thus, so many Americans have been taught to believe not only that politicians shouldn’t have the obligation of leadership imposed on them — i.e., to persuade the public of what is right — but that it’s actually smart and wise of them to avoid positions they believe in when doing so is politically risky.

People love now to assume the role of super-sophisticated political consultant rather than a citizen demanding actions from their representatives.  Due to the prism of gamesmanship through which political pundits understand and discuss politics, many citizens have learned to talk about their political leaders as though they’re political strategists advising their clients as to the politically shrewd steps that should be taken (“this law is awful and unjust and he was being craven by voting for it, but he was absolutely right to vote for it because the public wouldn’t understand if he opposed it”), rather than as citizens demanding that their public servants do the right thing (“this law is awful and unjust and, for that reason alone, he should oppose it and show leadership by making the case to the public as to why it’s awful and unjust”).

It may be unrealistic to expect most politicians in most circumstances to do what Jim Webb is doing here (or what Russ Feingold did during Bush’s first term).  My guess is that Webb, having succeeded in numerous other endeavors outside of politics, is not desperate to cling to his political office, and he has thus calculated that he’d rather have six years in the Senate doing things he thinks are meaningful than stay there forever on the condition that he cowardly renounce any actual beliefs.  It’s probably true that most career politicians, possessed of few other talents or interests, are highly unlikely to think that way.

But the fact that cowardly actions from political leaders are inevitable is no reason to excuse or, worse, justify and even advocate that cowardice.  In fact, the more citizens are willing to excuse and even urge political cowardice in the name of “realism” or “pragmatism” (“he was smart to take this bad, unjust position because Americans are too stupid or primitive for him to do otherwise and he needs to be re-elected”), the more common that behavior will be.  Politicians and their various advisers, consultants and enablers will make all the excuses they can for why politicians do what they do and insist that public opinion constrains them to do otherwise.  That excuse-making is their role, not the role of citizens.  What ought to be demanded of political officials by citizens is precisely the type of leadership Webb is exhibiting here.

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Senator Webb‘s Act of Strength

The Nation, Katrina vanden Heuvel

02/12/2009

UPDATE: Sen. Webb will introduce legislation today to overhaul the criminal justice system.

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Our criminal justice system is broken. The US represents 5 percent of the world’s population but accounts for nearly 25 percent of its prison population. We are incarcerating at a record rate with one in 100 American adults now locked up–2.3 million people overall. As a New York Times editorial stated simply, “This country puts too many people behind bars for too long.”

But people who have been fighting for reform for decades are seeing new openings for change. The fiscal crisis has state governors and legislators looking for more efficient and effective alternatives to spending $50 billion a year on incarceration. At the federal level, there is reason to believe that the Obama administration and a reinvigorated Department of Justice will take a hard look at the inequities of the criminal justice system and work for a smarter and more effective approach to public safety. Finally, there are Congressional leaders–none more prominent than Senator Jim Webb –who understand that the system isn’t functioning as it should and there is an urgent need for reform.

Indeed advocates for reform couldn’t ask for a better standard-bearer than Senator Webb . As a decorated former Marine and Reagan Administration official no one is going to slap him with the politically-dreaded “soft on crime” label that has stymied so many Democrats who have taken on this issue in the past. There is a “Nixon goes to China ” quality to Webb’s call for change–a law and order man who described his reform effort as “an act not of weakness but of strength.”

As a journalist Webb wrote on the need for reform after visiting Japanese prisons and seeing a fundamental fairness and effectiveness that he recognized as lacking in the US criminal justice system. As a Senator he’s held hearings which have highlighted racial disparities in sentencing, the staggering costs of incarceration and effective and cost-efficient alternatives, and a futile and racially biased drug policy.

Now Senator Webb is poised to establish a commission with a broad mandate to examine issues like drug treatment, effective parole policy, racial injustice, education for inmates, reentry programs–the myriad of issues intertwined in wasteful, ineffective criminal justice policies. Look for him to lay out that mandate with specificity in the coming weeks, and make an aggressive push to bring this issue to the forefront in both Congress and the media, much as he was able to do with the GI Bill.

Webb sent me an e-mail saying, “I feel very strongly about the need to put the right people behind bars. But we’re locking up the wrong people too often all across our country. Mental illness isn’t a crime. Addiction isn’t a crime. We need to make sharp distinctions between violent offenders and people who are incarcerated for non-violent crimes, drug abuse and mental illness. We must raise public awareness about the need for criminal justice reform and find viable solutions. My staff and I are finalizing proposed legislation that could be introduced in the next two weeks to establish a national commission that will take a comprehensive look at where our criminal justice system is broken and how we can fix it.”

While it’s critical that Senator Webb is raising these issues at the national level where they have received so little attention, Marc Mauer, Executive Director of The Sentencing Project, points out that 90 percent of the US prison population is incarcerated in state prisons and only 10 percent in federal prisons. Mauer said there is a growing awareness at the state level that our drug and sentencing policies have “gotten out of hand” and that the fiscal crisis presents an opportunity to do something about it.

“The fiscal crisis gives governors and legislative leaders the opening to do what many of them have known should be done for some time, but [they] didn’t have a political comfort level to do it,” Mauer said. “Now they can talk about issues like excessive sentences for drug offenders, and too many people being sent back to prison for technical violations of parole.”

One legislative reform effort is occurring in Senator Webb ‘s own Virginia –a state that abolished parole in 1995 and is second only to Texas in number of executions. This session, a bill will be taken up that would allow prison officials to release non-violent offenders 90 days before their sentences are up. This would primarily be achieved by offering drug treatment programs at the beginning of an individual’s incarceration rather than only at the end. (Which begs the question–if we are truly serious about rehabilitation of inmates why are we only offering addicts treatment for a disease at the end of a sentence?!) Upon successful completion of the treatment program these individuals would be eligible for early release. The legislation also provides for more non-violent offenders to be sent to community-based programs or be monitored electronically rather than incarcerated.

A similar program was undertaken in Washington state and a four-year study of 2,600 inmates released early showed significant cost savings and no negative consequences in terms of recidivism. Mauer said the coalition rallying around the Virginia proposal is diverse and particularly encouraging in what has traditionally been a “tough on crime state.”

Other states taking action on criminal justice reform include: Michigan which is addressing re-entry issues and shifting resources to parole officers and community-based programs; Kansas cut parole revocations by 50 percent in a two-year period by increasing oversight of parole officers and using alternatives to incarceration such as increased drug testing and electronic monitoring; California issued a court ruling this week that the state must address its failure to provide adequate health and medical services in prisons by reducing the population by a third–nearly 55,000 persons–through “shortening sentences, diverting nonviolent felons to county programs, giving inmates good behavior credits toward early release, and reforming parole.”

Now is also a hopeful, unique moment in New York state where the top three political leaders all support real reform and there is a chance to repeal the wasteful, ineffective, and unjustRockefeller-era drug laws–after thirty-five years! This week I moderated a panel –cosponsored by The Nation, the Correctional Association of New York, and The New School’s Center for New York City Public Affairs–of government officials and reform leaders working to downsize prisons, reform probation and parole, and provide effective community-based prisoner reentry programs. The Correctional Association of New York is leading the “Drop the Rock” campaign that includes an Advocacy Day in Albany in March.

Greg Berman, Director of the Center for Court Innovation –a non-profit think tank in New York –said, “The question is: can we come up with meaningful, cost-effective responses to non-violent crime that do not rely on incarceration? Drug courts, mental health courts and community courts–the so-called ‘problem-solving courts‘–all show enormous potential. Most criminal cases are not complicated in a legal sense, but they are committed by people with complicated lives. Scratch the surface and you find addiction, mental illness, joblessness, etc. These problem-solving courts are linking offenders to drug treatment, counseling, job training in lieu of incarceration. But unlike some rehabilitation efforts in the past, they are requiring participants to return to court on a periodic basis to ensure accountability. There is a growing amount of evidence suggesting that this approach can change sentencing practice–dramatically reducing the use of jail, for example–while also reducing both substance abuse and recidivism.”

Despite a fiscal crisis which has caused at least forty states to make or propose cuts in vital services like education and health care –and ample evidence of the effectiveness of alternatives to incarceration–the battle for reform on the state level is still a difficult one.

“It’s far from a done deal that this will automatically lead to prison reductions,” Mauer told me. “One option is to say let’s reconsider sentencing policies, reduce the population, close prisons and save money. The other choice is to say let’s cut out alternatives to incarceration, community-based drug treatment, and other programs, and you can see those cost savings very quickly. I think that would be a shortsighted way to go but it’s going to be tempting for a lot of legislators to think about doing that. I think that’s the battle that is going to be fought in different states.”

That’s why the effort of Senator Webb and his colleagues at the federal level is so critical. They can galvanize support for repealing unjust policies like those that treat a low-level user of crack the same as a major drug dealer, or five grams of crack the same as 500 grams of powder. They can ensure that we use needed federal dollars for public safety in smart and effective ways. For example, the Second Chance Act to provide job training, drug treatment, and other re-entry programs was passed with broad bipartisan support in 2008 but no funds have been appropriated. Finally, with Senator Webb ‘s commission, we can begin the process of transforming our criminal justice system so that prisons are reserved for violent offenders and other vital resources are used to support alternatives like drug treatment, effective parole policies, education, and reentry programs.

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Webb Takes on Politics’ Third Rail: Prison Reform

The Lynchburg News & Advance editorial

March 29, 2009

In spite of having the demeanor sometimes of a bull in the proverbial china shop, U.S. Sen. Jim Webb also has the reputation of a legislator who’s unafraid to take on Herculean tasks.

In the last session of Congress, the freshman U.S. senator looked at the huge number of armed services veterans returning from duty in Iraq and Afghanistan and realized the decades-old GI Bill was in need of serious updating.

Himself a Vietnam vet (in addition to being a former secretary of the Navy), he took on the job of crafting a new GI Bill and shepherding it through the Byzantine legislative process to ultimate passage.

That would have been a career-capper for any legislator; for a freshman, it was a success almost unheard of.

Now, Virginia ’s senior senator has turned his attention to reform of America ’s criminal justice system. Thursday, Webb introduced the National Criminal Justice Commission Act of 2009 in Congress, with bipartisan support from top Democratic and Republican senators. His top GOP ally is Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania , a former chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

America ’s prisons — both federal and state — are overflowing with prisoners. The United States has about 5 percent of the world’s population; we have about 25 percent of the world’s known prison population, Webb estimates.

Something, somewhere is seriously wrong.

In his speech Thursday introducing the legislation, Webb pointed out some stark and startling statistics.

In 1980, the U.S. had about 41,000 drug offenders behind bars. Today, that number is up to more than half a million, an increase of 1,200 percent. Black Americans (12 percent of the population, 14 percent of drug users) account for 37 percent of those arrested on drug charges, 59 percent of those convicted and 74 percent of those sent to prison.

The causes of crime are many; society’s cost of protection is huge. Yet despite all the added police officers on the street, the prison building boom and abolition of parole in many states, Americans feel no safer.

Much of this country’s criminal activity can be traced back to drug use. Addicts — who often can’t hold down a job but need the cash to get their next fix — make up a great proportion of the prison population. But what if our political and judicial systems began to view addicts as individuals with an illness that needed treating before any crime were committed?

That’s the challenge Webb has tackled. Just think of the changes that could arise if society just modifies its thinking about crime, drugs and addiction. It’s truly mind-boggling.

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Sen. Webb pushes prison reform

DC Examiner editorial

March 27, 2009

Kudos to Senator Jim Webb for this.  Backed by Senator Arlen Specter, Sen. Webb has introduced legislation to create a panel whose charter would be recommending concrete recommendations to reform the U.S. prison system.

” America ‘s criminal justice system has deteriorated to the point that it is a national disgrace,” Webb said, noting that the United States has five percent of the world’s population but 25 percent of the world’s prisoners.

Some related statistics from my post last year:

    * The prison population of the United States is 2.3M.

    * China , with a population 4x the U.S. imprisons 1.6M (it should be noted this number doesn’t include whats estimated to be hundreds of thousands of Chinese held in administrative detention, i.e., political prisoners).

    * The incarceration rate for the U.S. is 751 in prison per every 100,000 in population. If only adults are counted, one in one hundred Americans is in prison.  As a benchmark, Russia imprisons 627 per 100K, England is 151 per 100K, Germany is at 88 per 100K, and Japan is 63 per 100K population.  The median is 125 imprisoned per 100K population.

In a memo from Sen. Webb’s office, he noted the panels “task will be to propose concrete, wide-ranging reforms to responsibly reduce the overall incarceration rate; improve federal and local responses to international and domestic gang violence; restructure our approach to drug policy; improve the treatment of mental illness; improve prison administration, and establish a system for reintegrating ex-offenders.”

Webb has said more emphasis is required to target those who perpetrate violence, such as gang members, and less emphasis on small time targets like drug offenders and parole violators.  Noting policies that strip felons of citizenship rights place them at a disadvantage when trying to find employment following release and contributes  to high recidivism rates.

Finally, one more startling statistic: 1 in 100 Americans are currently behind bars.  This is a brave move by Sen. Webb and puts him in some perilous territory politically.   Political opponents will, undoubtedly, brand him as “soft on crime”.  I don’t buy it.  I think he’s long on sense.

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Go after the real problem

Daily Press editorial

March 31, 2009

Parade magazine handed Virginia Sen. Jim Webb a big megaphone when it played his article on the American way of prisons on its cover last Sunday.

Webb makes the case that our prison system is a “national disgrace.” Expensive, discriminatory and ineffective.

The United States incarcerates people at a rate that’s five times the world average, with little to show for it.

If the United States is a leader among nations, Virginia ‘s becoming a leader among states. Our “get tough” approach has made us 13th in the nation in the share of adults we put behind bars.

Prison and corrections drain $1 billion out of the state budget, and that doesn’t include local jails. The $75,000-plus that each state prisoner costs us, over the course of the average confinement, isn’t yielding much benefit, other than a respite from their presence. It certainly isn’t doing much to prevent more crime. Virginia figures that one in four prisoners return to state prison; national studies put the recidivism rate even higher.

Our current approach is punitive, but not effective. For many prisoners, the prison experience is so brutal, so isolating, so dehumanizing that what it produces is public safety time bombs waiting to re-detonate.

We “punish” prisoners by denying much in the way of help, while they’re locked up or after they’re released, to deal with the substance abuse and mental illness rampant among them, or to address the lack of education and job skills that get in the way of finding honest means of support when they’re released.

That’s self-defeating, because even with “no parole” and “truth in sentencing,” most prisoners are released. The average stay in Virginia is three and a half years.

But, again, Virginia offers little to help prisoners make the transition back to communities, and lots of policies — such as stripping felons of voting rights — that make it harder to find the jobs, housing and place in society that might take them somewhere other than back to crime.

All of this argues for rethinking our approach, and considering how we can spend our money on the real problems, where it can make a real difference.

The first place to look is at the rate at which we lock people up for nonviolent crimes. The great majority — 70 percent — of the people who enter Virginia prisons are in for nonviolent offenses.

One in four is in for a drug charge — mostly possession. Similar patterns prevail in local jails. But — and Webb is particularly persuasive on this point — our “lock ’em up” approach has done little to break up the drug trade or staunch the flow of dangerous drugs into our country.

Making progress on that front means focusing our effort on the real problem. And that is not marijuana. Yet it consumes enormous resources — nearly half of all drug arrests nationwide are for marijuana. In Virginia , there are more than 19,000 arrests a year for marijuana.

The argument has been made previously in this space that we need to consider decriminalizing — or even legalizing — possession of marijuana. And treating it the way we treat other substances with the potential for abuse, such as alcohol and tobacco. And distinguishing between marijuana and truly dangerous, destructive drugs. So we could free up the resources to go after those, and after the really dangerous crimes, which involve gangs, distribution and sales.

Can a cover story in a widely distributed magazine jump-start change? Can a relatively new senator lead the charge? If anyone can move the nation from hand-wringing to action, it’s the tenacious Jim Webb .

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Senator elevates debate on failed drug, prison policies

The Virginian Pilot, Roger Chesley

October 18, 2008

JIM WEBB has far-reaching ideas about reforming the country’s harsh drug laws, reducing the swollen prison population and spending more to rehabilitate substance abusers who truly want help. But Virginia ’s junior senator faces a challenge: How many federal lawmakers will join a quest that could amount to political suicide?

It’s not as if Webb, a Democrat in his first term, hasn’t already made a splash in the U.S. Senate. He successfully sponsored legislation that boosted benefits in the GI Bill for veterans of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq — over earlier objections from the White House. He was once mentioned as a possible vice presidential candidate for Barack Obama.

But now Webb is wading into a cesspool that will be difficult to clean up. Nearly 2.4 million people sit in prisons and jails across America . With 5 percent of the world’s population, the United States houses an astonishing 25 percent of the world’s reported prisoners. Yet national politicians have been eerily silent about the costs of our lock-’em-up-mentality — both to taxpayers and on our communities.

Thankfully, that hasn’t deterred Webb. “Proper leadership demands that we focus our energies on bringing true criminal conduct to justice while reducing the ranks of the incarcerated, not only for their good but also for our own,” he wrote in his book “A Time to Fight,” which was published this spring.

And he’s showing that leadership.

Since Webb entered the Senate in 2007, he’s chaired two Joint Economic Committee hearings on prison and drug policy. Webb, a former secretary of the Navy, dedicated an entire chapter in his book to the topic. On Wednesday, he hosted a forum at George Mason University that brought together police, federal agents, academics and critics of sentencing policies.

Webb is daring to antagonize the law enforcement ranks and tough-on-crime citizens because he’s come to two conclusions: Our current policies simply aren’t working. And no one seems to be debating those policies in a meaningful, comprehensive way.

“We have a national crisis on our hands that no one wants to address,” he said Wednesday. “You will notice that not a single question about our rampant prison population has been asked during the presidential campaign.”

In speeches and writings, Webb has detailed some unpopular facts and positions:

“The time has come to stop locking up people for mere possession and use of marijuana,” he said in his book. “It makes far more sense to take the money that would be saved by such a policy and use it for enforcement of gang-related activities.” This has special resonance in South Hampton Roads, where a Chesapeake police detective was slain in January during a raid of a suspected marijuana-growing operation.

“Some types of drugs are widely tolerated in our society, and no solution to this problem will be possible if we fail to take this fact into account,” he said Wednesday. Federal statistics show that in 2005, 112 million Americans above age 12 admitted to using illegal drugs at some point in their lives.

Enforcement patterns appear to be racially biased. “Although African Americans constitute 14 percent of regular drug users, they are 37 percent of those arrested for drug offenses, and 56 percent of persons in state prisons for drug crimes,” Webb said. Those statistics were supported by a comment by Marc Mauer, executive director of The Sentencing Project, a research and advocacy organization: “It has been well documented that drug arrest rates for African Americans in particular are disproportionate to their degree of drug use or drug selling.”

The senator cautions that he doesn’t want to open wide the prison bars for violent felons. High-level dealers should still be targeted. Webb also said Americans want “to break the back of gangs.”

However, he does advocate greater use of drug courts, a program that spares nonviolent addicts charged with crimes from prison if they follow strict guidelines and stay clean. Virginia has 27 drug courts, but only 14 receive state funding.

On the street, meanwhile, the drug war continues. Chris Sakala, a narcotics officer from Montgomery County , Md. , noted in written comments that a “high-grade marijuana” is one of his unit’s largest problems. The stuff sells for as much as $6,000 per pound.

Certainly, interdiction and enforcement must continue to be part of the mix, along with education and treatment. However, a recalibration on drug and sentencing policy is past overdue.

Sen. Webb has both the leadership and respect to spotlight the issue. It will be interesting to see if any other political leaders join him.

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A Sensible Call for Sentencing Reform

The Roanoke Times editorial

October 13, 2008

Virginia ‘s junior senator insists on taking an honest look at the high cost of the war on drugs.

Sen. Jim Webb will be moderating a symposium Wednesday on illegal drug trafficking and the nation’s hugely expensive fight against it.

The symposium at George Mason University could not be more timely for Virginians and their policymakers, who last week heard Gov. Tim Kaine’s latest — but by no means last — budget cuts to match steep shortfalls in state revenues.

Webb’s interest, of course, is at the federal rather than state level, but the concerns he has been raising — during two earlier Senate hearings and now at the upcoming symposium — apply equally in both spheres.

Webb is gathering law enforcement and criminal justice experts, along with advocates of sentencing reform, both to collect facts and to educate the public about a policy failure most politicians consider too politically dangerous to broach:

The so-called war on drugs has produced the highest incarceration rate of any nation in the world — 750 inmates for every 100,000 people. Most criminal justice experts attribute a leap in imprisonments since 1991 to tougher sentencing laws, particularly for drug offenses, that have ensnared a whole lot of low-level, nonviolent offenders.

Webb cites statistics that show four out of five drug arrests in 2005 were for possession, one out of five for drug sales.

The cost to build and operate the prisons needed to hold all of these people is enormous: States spent about $2 billion on construction alone in 2006. And the cost to society is compounded by the loss at an early age of lives that might have been productive, but end up in a cycle of sharply limited opportunities, recidivism and reimprisonment.

In a phone interview last week, Webb was careful to state, “I’m all for incarcerating violent offenders and people involved in gang activities.” Given the electorate’s enthusiasm for tough-on-crime rhetoric, he knows his congressional colleagues will be loath to take up sentencing reform: “People running and in office get nervous.

“But we have to be able to address the dynamic in some way because it’s all so skewed.”

Webb has no legislative fix in his back pocket, but insists on having the conversation to get the country working toward one. That’s necessary and brave.

In the midst of painful budget cuts, Virginia lawmakers should ponder the problem and heed Kaine’s pointed suggestion to look for policy changes that would yield long-term savings, such as prison reform.

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