Webb's fight: Senator tackles prison reform in new bill
On Thursday, March 26, Sen. Jim Webb (D-VA) introduced a bill that, if made law, would begin a drastic overhaul of the federal prison system. With the National Criminal Justice Act of 2009, Webb is calling for the formation of a "blue-ribbon panel" of the "best minds in America" to take up the task of fixing a system Webb calls "a national disgrace."
"Its irregularities and inequities cut against the notion that we are a society founded on fundamental fairness," says Webb in a statement. "Our failure to address this problem has caused the nation's prisons to burst their seams with massive overcrowding, even as our neighborhoods have become more dangerous."
Webb has begun his campaign to drum up support for his bill by authoring a cover story in the Sunday, March 29 edition of Parade Magazine. The Norfolk Virginian-Pilot reports that Webb has already won support for the bill from President Obama.
Much of the bill focuses on the need to re-evaluate how the corrections system treats nonviolent drug offenders and its effect on drug trafficking at large.
"Despite high incarceration rates for drug-related offenses," write Webb in the bill, "illicit drug availability remains consistent. Eighty-six percent of high school students report that it is 'very easy' or 'easy' to obtain marijuana. Forty-seven percent report the same for cocaine, 39 percent for crack, and 27 percent for heroin."
Webb suggests the panel examine the issue of whether prisons could do a better job of rehabilitating drug-addicted inmates.
"Those addicted to and abusive of illicit drugs are an estimated 10 to 20 percent of the drug-using population," writes Webb, "but account for an estimated half of all illicit drug consumption. Treating addiction will significantly decrease that demand."
Political analysts have long seen language like this as a "third rail" issue that could create liabilities for an elected official who takes on the issue.
"The danger is that you could be seen as being soft on crime," says Robert Holsworth, a former political science professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, "and there's really no political upside to it. How does supporting prisoners help you get re-elected?"
Conventional wisdom holds that's particularly true in Virginia, where, in 1994, the General Assembly passed Governor George Allen's (R) bill to abolish parole for violent criminals, which helped to fuel Allen's rise to the U.S. Senate in 2000.
Today, Allen says that it seems his one-time political opponent's goals are misguided.
"Reducing the overall incarceration rate shouldn't be the priority," says Allen. "The priority should be protecting law-abiding citizens. Criminal apologists will no doubt cheer this bill, but the idea that the overcrowding of our prisons is due to their being filled by nonviolent drug offenders is an urban myth. In Virginia, at least, these misdemeanor offenders are not kept in the same facilities as violent criminals."
Rather, Allen says law enforcement should be more aggressive about pursuing drug offenders due to its link to other, more violent crime.
"A lot of violent crime is either between those in the drug trade like you're seeing in Mexico now, or it's drug users who are robbing people to buy more drugs," says Allen. "What we ought to be doing is catching the drug dealers, and selling off their ill-gotten gains to catch more drug dealers, like cutting open a shark for bait to catch more sharks."
Still, UVA professor and political pundit Larry Sabato says that Webb's tackling of this controversial issue could ultimately pay dividends when the senator is up for re-election in 2012.
"Sometimes politicians who are willing to break a taboo are rewarded for it," says Sabato. "Virginia is very different from the way it was in 1994, and more open to more thoughtful approaches to complex issues. As long as Webb isn't for throwing open the doors for hardened criminals, and he's not because he's not stupid, this will help his re-election."