Webb eyes prison reform

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.