UPDATE: Sen. Webb will introduce legislation today to overhaul the criminal justice system.
Our criminal justice system is broken. The US represents 5 percent ofthe world’s population but accounts for nearly 25 percent of its prisonpopulation. We are incarcerating at a record rate with one in 100American adults now locked up–2.3 million people overall. As a New York Times editorialstated simply, “This country puts too many people behind bars for toolong.”
But people who have been fighting for reform for decades are seeing newopenings for change. The fiscal crisis has state governors andlegislators looking for more efficient and effective alternatives tospending $50 billion a year on incarceration. At the federal level,there is reason to believe that the Obama administration and areinvigorated Department of Justice will take a hard look at theinequities of the criminal justice system and work for a smarter andmore effective approach to public safety. Finally, there areCongressional leaders–none more prominent than Senator Jim Webb–who understand that the system isn’t functioning as it should andthere is an urgent need for reform.
Indeed advocates for reform couldn’t ask for a better standard-bearerthan Senator Webb. As a decorated former Marine and ReaganAdministration official no one is going to slap him with thepolitically-dreaded “soft on crime” label that has stymied so manyDemocrats who have taken on this issue in the past. There is a “Nixongoes to China” quality to Webb’s call for change–a law and order manwho described his reform effort as “an act not of weakness but of strength.”
As a journalist Webb wrote on the need for reform after visitingJapanese prisons and seeing a fundamental fairness and effectivenessthat he recognized as lacking in the US criminal justice system. As aSenator 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 broadmandate to examine issues like drug treatment, effective parole policy,racial injustice, education for inmates, reentry programs–the myriadof issues intertwined in wasteful, ineffective criminal justicepolicies. Look for him to lay out that mandate with specificity in thecoming weeks, and make an aggressive push to bring this issue to theforefront in both Congress and the media, much as he was able to do withthe GI Bill.