Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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March 31, 2009

PRISON REFORM GETS OFF TO A GOOD START.... Sen. Jim Webb (D-Va.), speaking from the Senate floor last week, said, "Let's start with a premise that I don't think a lot of Americans are aware of. We have five percent of the world's population; we have 25 percent of the world's known prison population. 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."

And with that, Webb unveiled his National Criminal Justice Act, which he and his aides began crafting late last year. It's easy to remember a time that a politician even broaching the subject -- especially a Democrat -- would set off all kinds of alarms. Predictable conservative rhetoric about being "soft" on crime and/or "coddling" criminals would knock down the policy discussion before it could begin.

Ryan Grim reports, however, that Webb hasn't faced any of this so far, and the Virginia senator's initiative seems to be off to a good start.

Jim Webb stepped firmly on a political third rail last week when he introduced a bill to examine sweeping reforms to the criminal justice system. Yet he emerged unscathed, a sign to a political world frightened by crime and drug issues that the bar might not be electrified any more.

"After two [Joint Economic Committee] hearings and my symposium at George Mason Law Center, people from across the political and philosophical spectrum began to contact my staff," Webb told the Huffington Post. "I heard from Justice Kennedy of the Supreme Court, from prosecutors, judges, defense lawyers, former offenders, people in prison, and police on the street. All of them have told me that our system needs to be fixed, and that we need a holistic plan of how to solve it."

Webb's reform is backed by a coalition of liberals, conservatives and libertarians that couldn't have existed even a few years ago.

Under the predictable scenario based on previous norms, Democrats would see Webb face right-wing pushback, and they'd quietly back away. Last week, however, the entire Senate Democratic leadership announced their co-sponsorship of Webb's commission proposal. The response from the right has been mild, and in some cases, even positive.

Maybe there's something unique about Webb -- a decorated Marine combat veteran and former Navy Secretary under Reagan -- that makes him immune to questions about "toughness." Or perhaps this is one of those issues in which everyone can agree, regardless of politics, that the status quo costs too much and doesn't work.

Either way, kudos to Webb for getting the reform discussion started, despite being a first-term senator from a state that's hardly progressive on criminal justice issues. As Glenn Greenwald explained the other day, "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."

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

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Please, just legalize prostitution and recreational drugs and poof, prison reformed. Oops, too many lawyers out of a job, never happen.

Posted by: SteveA on March 31, 2009 at 4:26 PM | PERMALINK

From the tv show Yes Minister:

"Ministers will generally accept proposals which contain the words simple, quick, popular and cheap.

"Ministers will generally throw out proposals which contain the words complicated, lengthy, expensive and controversial.

"Above all, if you wish to describe a proposal in a way that guarantees that a Minister will reject it, describe it as courageous."

Posted by: mm on March 31, 2009 at 4:36 PM | PERMALINK

No one could have anticipated that locking up hordes of non-violent drug offenders would be both costly and ineffective.

Posted by: Dennis-SGMM on March 31, 2009 at 4:44 PM | PERMALINK

I think enough people on both sides of the aisle have seen the results of our broken system that the idea isn't going to be smacked down. Whether or not Webb can get actual, useful reforms passed ... well, that's another matter.

Posted by: Mnemosyne on March 31, 2009 at 5:17 PM | PERMALINK

Isn't it funny how you're described as courageous in Washington, D.C. if you say something to oppose insanity? In this case he hasn't even been specific, he just said we should take a look at it.

Funny world, er Village.

Posted by: MarkH on March 31, 2009 at 6:17 PM | PERMALINK

A lot of the talk about prison reform focuses on how "hard" or "soft" someone is on criminals. But to be thorough in his analysis Sen. Webb needs to consider the role of DAs in this problem. And if he wants some insight into this he need look no further than nearby Leesburg, Virginia, where the local prosecutor has gone wild.

Loudoun County's Republican Prosecutor James Plowman has spent the last year of his office's staff time along with tens of thousands of taxpayer dollars prosecuting an assistant principal at a local high school for briefly coming into possession of a single cell phone pic of an unidentifiable, partially clad female torso as part of a "sexting" investigation at Freedom High School in South Riding, Virginia.

First Mr. Plowman filed misdemeanor charges. When they didn't stick he withdrew those charges and filed felony possession of child pornography charges. This carries the threat of a five-year jail sentence along with other harsh penalties. As more facts come to light the more outrageous the prosecution looks.

Some suggestions for Senator Webb: require in-person fact finding hearings before ALL criminal indictments, including the defense attorneys as well as the prosecutor, no exceptions; make local governments automatically pay all defense fees for failed prosecutions; require bar association reviews of failed prosecutions; consider mandatory arbitration & alternative service for certain categories of non-violent crime; stop building jails -- literally a moratorium on jail bonds -- and force prosecutors to prioritize crimes that truly merit jail time. Really, do we want exemplary public school administrators and their junior high and high school students doing hard time for "sexting?" Is that what we built our prisons for?

In the Plowman case a simple hearing between the Public School Administration and the DA's office could have confirmed the actual events but the justice system positioned itself as an adversary of the public schools. This "prosecute first, ask questions later" approach to law enforcement is extremely costly and it breaks down the essential trust & communication needed for the different branches of local government to function effectively.

Posted by: pj in jesusland on March 31, 2009 at 6:44 PM | PERMALINK

There was an article in the New York Times recently talking about how states are looking to empty their prisons because the money could be better used elsewhere.

Apparently it costs $35,000 a year to house a prisoner in New York State. There is opposition in the small towns where prisons were built to provide jobs for the local residents. But,the state is planning to reduce the prison population where feasible.

It will be a great irony if marijuana is decriminalized because we did not want to spend the money to imprison the sellers and users. Its the end of prohibition for the 21st Century.

Posted by: Kathleen Evans on March 31, 2009 at 7:56 PM | PERMALINK

We have five percent of the world's population; we have 25 percent of the world's known prison population. 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." -- Jim Webb

I wholeheartedly support Webb on this issue (as I didn't support his "FISA fix" vote). And I applaud his approach towards getting bigger recognition for himself (versus that of Mark Warner, who, eschewing hard work, simply joined Bayh's Cowardly Curs Cabal)...

But I'm dismayed that someone of his intellect can see only two (specified above) possibilities, when the *third* one should be staring him in the face: The rest of the world is simply inept at catching (and successfully prosecuting) the criminals, while we excel at it.

It (the third possibility) is not right, of course, but I'd expect most Repubs to bring it up, since they're the ones vested in the idea of US being unique in the good ways. For Webb not to have foreseen (and defused) it at the outset seems like a curious oversight.

Posted by: exlibra on March 31, 2009 at 8:23 PM | PERMALINK

What is it about Webb? He scares the shit out of the Republiweenies.

Posted by: The Answer WAS Orange on April 1, 2009 at 7:50 AM | PERMALINK

Good news on the Loudoun County DA's prosecution of the assistant high school principal for possession of child pornography (see above)-- late Tuesday the presiding judge in Loudoun County Circuit Court, Thomas Horne, dismissed all charges against the assistant principal, ruling that the picture confiscated on the student's cell phone as part of a "sexting" investigation was in fact not pornography.

Republican prosecutor James Plowman misapplied Virginia's very clearly defined pornography laws in an over-reaching attack against an innocent man, a union member with 30 years of experience in the classrooms and front offices of northern Virginia's public schools.

This was Mr. Plowman's second defeat on charges against the assistant principal -- he lost last year on the misdemeanor charges he filed. Technically he withdrew those charges but he was about to go down for lack of evidence.

Such poor judgment by elected officials incurs considerable public costs, in this case to the justice system as well as to the public schools. It has probably cost well into the six figures when all is said and done. What a waste of the courts. What a waste of a talented educational professional & the school system he serves.

In his prison reform initiative, Senator Webb needs to address the role that the poor judgment of prosecutors plays in over-populating our prisons. Also, providing smart defense attorneys for poor people can be a cost effective strategy for controlling the rising demand for prison beds.

Today, one more Virginia prison cell just opened up for five years, no thanks to James Plowman. Innocence & good judgment are very cost-effective.

Posted by: pj in jesusland on April 1, 2009 at 8:14 AM | PERMALINK



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