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Senator James Webb Keeps on Fighting

A few weeks ago, I noted how Senator Jim Webb, a Democrat from Virginia, had taken up a heretofore not-so-popular issue to the general public: prison reform. In general, when legislators of both parties get involved in criminal justice and the penal system, it is primarily to write tougher laws.  In other words, prison reform has never been a “winning” or money making issue for law makers and politicians.

Which is why Senator Webb’s efforts on this issue are so unique.  And now, his “pet issue” (albeit likely an issue of personal principle) is picking up steam in the Senate, as his Republican colleague, Senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania has now joined Webb in so-sponsoring a law that would create a blue-ribbon panel that would undertake an year and a half analysis and subsequently make reform recommendations.

Webb has referred to parts of our criminal justice system as a “national disgrace” and has noted that the U.S has 5% of the global population but 25% of its prisoners.  He has also noted the rapidly rising number of drug offenders that are serving time, and he charged that four times as many mentally ill people are in prison than are in mental health institutions.

The eleven person commission whose chairperson would be appointed by the president, would try to improve American responses to gang violence, improve treatment for mental illnesses, change the standards for drug criminalization, improve prison administrative processes and create a system to reintegrate inmates back into society.  The panel would compose of experts from the criminal justice field, public health, law enforcement, prison management, social services, national security, inmate reentry into mainstream society and victims’ rights.

Currently there are approximately 5 million people on parole or probation. Senator Webb, is convinced that the U.S. has far too many inmates who ought not be incarcerated.

The data that back his assertion are as follows…

Greater than 1% of American adults are incarcerated, including about one out of nine African American men, according to the non-partisan Pew Research Center. In contrast, China, who has a population of over one billion, was second in the world with one and a half million prisoners, and Russia was third with 890,000 incarcerated. The U.S. incarceration rate is even greater than Iran’s.

On the other end of the spectrum, only 93 out of 100,000 people in Germany are incarcerated, which is approximately eight time fewer than the American rate of 750 out of 100,000 people. And as far as minorities go, one in 106 white males are in prison, one in 36 Latinos and one in 15 African-Americans men are serving time, according to Justice Department data.  Perhaps the most disturbing stat has to do with black men between twenty and thirty-four, of whom one in nine are incarcerated.

It will at the very least be very interesting to see what the panel comes up with.