Prison reform gets off to a good start

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.”