Webb eyes prison reform

WEBB EYES PRISON REFORM…. It’s a crowded policy landscape, and it’s daunting to consider which challenges to address first, but kudos to Sen. Jim Webb (D-Va.) for raising the importance of an issue that too often goes overlooked.

This spring, Webb (D-Va.) plans to introduce legislation on a long-standing passion of his: reforming the U.S. prison system. Jails teem with young black men who later struggle to rejoin society, he says. Drug addicts and the mentally ill take up cells that would be better used for violent criminals. And politicians have failed to address this costly problem for fear of being labeled “soft on crime.”

“I enjoy grabbing hold of really complex issues and boiling them down in a way that they can be understood by everyone,” Webb told the Washington Post. “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.”

Maybe it takes a decorated Marine veteran who served as Navy secretary under Reagan to avoid the “soft” label.

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 may be a little while until we see progress on this front. This spring, Webb will introduce legislation to create a national panel on criminal justice reform. If a panel is created, it’ll take a while for the members to conduct its research, and will take even more time before members of Congress are prepared to write and pass legislation.

But the process notwithstanding, 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.

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Steve Benen

Steve Benen is a producer at MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show. He was the principal contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog from August 2008 until January 2012.