Everyone is either directly or indirectly affected by crime, increasing rates of recidivism, costs of incarceration, and having those who have the penalty prescribed by law for their crimes barred from effectively being reintegrated into society as productive citizens.
In the spring of 2009, U.S. Senator Jim Webb, D-Virginia, introduced the National Criminal Justice Commission Act of 2009 on March 26. His proposal on criminal justice reform received generally wide support from senate leadership, the Senate Judiciary Committee and the White House. The blue-ribbon commission would be charged with a thorough, 18-month review of the criminal justice system and responsible for determining reforms for reducing the incarceration rate, identifying ways to effectively impact international and domestic gang violence, restructure policy on the adjudication of drug crimes, provide for appropriate treatment of mental illness, improve prison administration and establish a system for the effective reintegration of ex-offenders.
“With so many of our citizens in prison compared with the rest of the world,
there are only two possibilities: Either we are home to the most evil
people on earth or we are doing something different and vastly
counter productive. Obviously, this answer is the latter,”
—U.S. Senator Jim Webb
“The rate of incarceration in America has dramatically increased over the past 17 years. The United States has the world’s highest reported incarceration rate. With less than 5 percent of the world’s population, it has almost one-quarter of the world’s prisoners,” said Webb.
The unprecedented increase in imprisonment is attributed to the incarceration of more people for non-violent crimes, acts committed by the mentally ill or acts prompted by alcohol and drug dependency.
“Post-incarceration and re-entry programs vary in effectiveness. And often programs and services are non-existent in many communities. After having fully served the just sentences imposed for their crimes, ex-offenders must than confront a wall of laws and private policies that effectively bar them from employment,” Webb said.
He points out that effective services and programs for the formerly incarcerated have the potential to reduce recidivism rates and increase public safety. Without being provided the opportunity and support for reintegration into society, many resort again to the patterns of criminal activity that they have known just to survive. Most elected officials, afraid of being tarred as soft on crime, ignore these problems.
Webb has enlisted the support of top-ranking Democrats, including majority leader Harry Reid, and influential Republicans like Arlan Specter, the ranking minority member on the Judiciary Committee, and Lindsey Graham, the ranking member of the Crime and Drugs Subcommittee. A bipartisan national consensus has emerged that the criminal justice system is broken.” says Webb, a former Marine and Secretary of the Navy in the Reagan administration.
“There are few things rarer than a major politician doing something that is genuinely courageous and principled, but Sen. Jim` Webb’s impassioned commitment to fundamental prison reform is exactly that,” wrote Glenn Greenwald, a writer for the website Salon. Webb’s interest in the issue was prompted by his work as a journalist in 1984, when he wrote about an American citizen who was locked away in a Japanese prison for two years under extremely harsh conditions, for nothing more than marijuana possession,” Greenwald said.
Brown University Professor Glenn Loury describes America as “a nation of jailers whose prison system has grown into a leviathan unmatched in human history.”
In his two years in the Senate, Webb has held hearings on the costs associated with mass incarceration and on the criminal justice system’s response to the problems of illegal drugs. He also has called attention to the need to provide released inmates who have paid their debts to society more help getting jobs and resuming productive lives.
THE WAR ON DRUGS
If drug-legalizers are slowly gaining traction, drug-war-enders appear to be moving more swiftly to fix things from their end. Politicians in New York state recently reached a deal to repeal the state’s hard-line Rockefeller drug laws, passed in 1973, which imposed mandatory 15-years-to-life sentences for possession of small amounts of cocaine and heroin. Webb announced his intention to take that kind of reconsideration nationwide by introducing his National Criminal Justice Act Commission of 2009.
Although politically popular and expedient over the past several decades, the “tough-on-crime” stance promoted in reaction to escalating crime rates has not reduced crime and the rate of incarceration overall.
Alternative, effective approaches that provide both for intervention and rehabilitation through cost-effective programs and services that allow for the restoration of the formerly incarcerated to return to their communities have been documented to be effective in reducing crime and recidivism. Support is needed from the leadership of both major political parties as well as from our communities across the nation, according to Webb.
TIME TO CHANGE
The National Commission task is to look at every aspect of the criminal justice system with an eye toward reshaping the process from top to bottom. Webb intends to bring together the best minds in America to confer, report, and make recommendations about how we can reform the process, with clear answers to hard questions such as: Why are so many Americans currently in prison compared with other countries and our own history? What is the policy costing our nation, both in tax dollars and in lost opportunities? How can we reshape our nation’s drug policies? How can we better diagnose and treat mental illness? How can we end violence within prisons and increase the quality of prison administrators? How can we build workable re-entry programs so that communities can assimilate former offenders and encourage them to become productive citizens? How can we defend ourselves against the growing scourge of violent, internationally based gang activity?
Senator Jim Webb is a PARADE contributing editor and the author of nine Books, including “A Time to Fight.” For more information visit; parade.com or WWW.Webb. Senate.Gov.