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Tilting at Windmills

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March 26, 2009

WEBB EYES PRISON REFORM.... Back in December, Sen. Jim Webb (D-Va.) said he'd launch an initiative to reform the U.S. prison system in the spring. Here we are in late March, and Webb is right on time.

Sen. Jim Webb (D-VA) will launch an effort to reform the nation's prison system today at noon, his staff says, introducing a bill -- the National Criminal Justice Act of 2009 -- that would create a bipartisan commission no reform. The commission would undertake an 18-month review of the U.S. prison system, offering recommendations at the end.

Prison reform is a difficult thing to achieve, politically. Nearly every politician wants to be perceived as "tough on crime," and suggesting that too many Americans are being incarcerated can seem to run against that. (Webb has, in fact, pointed out that the U.S. has attained the highest incarceration rate in the world.) Add tough discussions of prison conditions, inmate crime, and abuse, and it's not an easy task for a politician to undertake.

That's certainly true, but if anyone is well positioned to try, it's Webb. If and when the right goes after Webb as "soft," one assumes the senator -- a decorated Marine veteran and former Navy Secretary under Reagan -- won't have to waste too much time proving otherwise.

Webb has reportedly considered this a key issue for many years, and is taking an approach that sounds a lot like common sense. He told the Washington Post in December, "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 speeches and in a book that devotes a chapter to prison issues, Webb describes a U.S. prison system that is deeply flawed in how it targets, punishes and releases those identified as criminals.

With 2.3 million people behind bars, the United States has imprisoned a higher percentage of its population than any other nation, according to the Pew Center on the States and other groups. Although the United States has only 5 percent of the world's population, it has 25 percent of its prison population, Webb says. [...]

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. He says he believes society can be made safer while making the system more humane and cost-effective.

It's obviously a crowded policy landscape, so no one should expect sweeping proposals anytime soon. Indeed, Webb's National Criminal Justice Act wouldn't recommend specific reforms, but rather, would establish a commission to launch an investigation and then recommend specific reforms.

That said, Webb is not only right to tackle the issue, he's showing political courage in addressing a problem most would prefer to ignore. Good for him.

Steve Benen 4:10 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (18)

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Bravo Sen. Webb

Posted by: G.Kerby on March 26, 2009 at 4:15 PM | PERMALINK

It's been a dangerous day for Democrats. First, the emphasis on marijuana in the president's town hall, and his failure to decisively lead the conversation away from those questions, runs the risk of making Obama's party look like they have questionable priorities. The GOP budget press conference wasn't the Republicans' finest hour, but they were focusing on substantive issues and the immediate contrast between this and the town hall was unmistakable. Which team will seem more serious to voters?

Next, Jim Webb takes a chance he'll be seen as being on the side of criminals, always a weak spot for the Democrats.

Will Obama be able to regain his footing tomorrow?

Posted by: MatthewRQuarreler on March 26, 2009 at 4:15 PM | PERMALINK

A Pew Research Study indicates that 1 in 31 persons in the US are in the criminal justice system (prison, parole, probation). That adds up to 7.3 million persons.

The cost in Colorado to house a person in jail was $61/day for minimum security and $90/day for maximum security. The cost for a person on probation was $3.60/day. Do the math. States cannot afford to keep people in jail. There is a new prison being built in Canon City, CO that may not open because the state can't afford to staff it.

Here in Colorado the ratio is 1 in 27. There were 3000 parolees that were referred back to prison here in Colorado on "technical" violations of the law. This can range from missing a meeting to using alcohol or worse. There is some movement here on having probation and parole officers do what they can to avoid sending a person on probation or parole back to prison for lower level violations of parole.

Needless to say there are many parole officers who want nothing to do with keeping parolees out of prison. Their attitude is any violation means going back to prison. There are some states that are taking a more pro-active step to parole and probation and trying to give parolees more help with classes, training, resources to help them avoid problems and stay on track.

Posted by: Mark on March 26, 2009 at 4:32 PM | PERMALINK

Just decriminalizing common illicit substances in quantities designated as "personal use", such as the law Mexico passed a few years ago, would clear a lot of inmates out of the system overnight.

Posted by: Kris on March 26, 2009 at 4:32 PM | PERMALINK

And the GOP response will be that if rich people got more tax cuts, they wouldn't need to create elaborate Ponzi schemes that tend to land them in jail, solving the prison problem while balancing the budget.

Posted by: qwerty on March 26, 2009 at 4:34 PM | PERMALINK
It's been a dangerous day for Democrats. First, the emphasis on marijuana in the president's town hall, and his failure to decisively lead the conversation away from those questions, runs the risk of making Obama's party look like they have questionable priorities. ...Next, Jim Webb takes a chance he'll be seen as being on the side of criminals, always a weak spot for the Democrats.

Concern troll is concerned.
News flash: it ain't 1988 anymore. Willie Horton can't save you now.

Posted by: elmo on March 26, 2009 at 4:57 PM | PERMALINK

Prison reform per se is important, and I applaud Webb for that. But we also (and he might be) should consider reforming the voting rights situation for ex-felons. Many of them can't vote, and it suppresses the Democratic vote in racial terms. It's time for national action to require restoration of most felons' voting rights after they are released - their punishment isn't supposed to last beyond imprisonment.

Posted by: Neil B ☼ on March 26, 2009 at 5:17 PM | PERMALINK

@elmo: MatthewRQuarreler is a parody of another poster, who actually is a bit of a winger.

Posted by: Kris on March 26, 2009 at 5:19 PM | PERMALINK

Virginia rocks. I'm very proud of my Senator.

Posted by: Jon on March 26, 2009 at 5:23 PM | PERMALINK

I'm sure there are many issues in which I disagree with Sen. Webb, but this isn't one of them, and I've always admired his tenacity, which is sorely needed on this issue.

Go, Jim, Go!!!

Posted by: bdop4 on March 26, 2009 at 5:29 PM | PERMALINK

The prison industry is a powerful force in this free market economy. Laws targeting urban criminals, like the crack laws, provide a large and steady supply of inmates to stock the rural prisons.
This "jobs" program is going to be hard to undue when you consider the number of congressmen with prisons in their district.

Posted by: kje on March 26, 2009 at 6:31 PM | PERMALINK

This is long over due. Good for Webb, but I am doubtful of any real change w/o real change in our drug policies. Lock up non-violent drugs users with violent criminals and in 5 years you can't tell the difference.

Making all but the most egregious drug offenses misdemeanors would go a long way in clearing out prisons and making life long criminals of drug users. In Texas, possession of any prescriptions w/o a prescription, or possession of cocaine is a felony.

Posted by: ScottW on March 26, 2009 at 6:37 PM | PERMALINK

Wait- he's going to establish a commission to launch an investigation and then they'll recommend reforms? Sounds like he's passing the buck pretty far. How about getting rid of prisons-for-profit first of all, then decriminalizing normal human behavior, and then establishing blue-ribbon panels and other such useless constructs.

Posted by: mogwai on March 26, 2009 at 7:19 PM | PERMALINK

Virginia rocks. I'm very proud of my Senator.
Posted by: Jon

Sadly one of the few Washington politicians who really commands respect.

We all know, except for Orrin Hatch, that it is ridiculous to keep small time drug users in jail forever, but the system seems stuck. The legal crowd always seems reluctant to backtrack lest people lose faith in the validity of court decisions and start appealing every decision.

Posted by: Luther on March 26, 2009 at 8:04 PM | PERMALINK

Although the United States has only 5 percent of the world's population, it has 25 percent of its prison population, Webb says.

O say does that star-spangled banner yet wave
O'er the land of the unfree and the home of the afraid?

Posted by: Grumpy on March 26, 2009 at 9:44 PM | PERMALINK

re: mogwai at 7:19 PM '..How about getting rid of prisons-for-profit ..'

Here's an example of why you are spot on:
http://www.philly.com/philly/wires/ap/news/state/pennsylvania/20090326_ap_officialpleadsguiltyinpacourthousescandal.html

Corporations making a profit running a jail have all the wrong motives; no wonder they all have plans for expansion - business is booming especially with help from bounty hunters.

Posted by: wooden t's on March 26, 2009 at 10:20 PM | PERMALINK

I like Senator Webb. I am glad he's working on this as it is an important problem to attack.

Posted by: Glen on March 27, 2009 at 12:49 AM | PERMALINK

How's this for an addition to the economic stimulus package: Restore Pell grants for inmates.

And I am absolutely serious.

Posted by: tina on March 27, 2009 at 11:24 AM | PERMALINK




 

 

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