Over the weekend, I finally read the stunning speech—remarkably for its political bravery—- that Jim Webb made to the Senate this past Thursday, when he introduced his bill calling for a blue ribbon commission to reform the nation’s criminal justice system, which he calls “a national disgrace.” The bill, titled the National Criminal Justice Act of 2009, is what many of us with an eye on criminal justice issues have been eagerly awaiting since late last year.
I knew that criminal justice advocates like Marc Mauer of the Sentencing Project had been working with Webb and his staff. But even so, his presentation was more intelligent more articulate, more informed—and more courageous—than most had dared to hope for. Here are some clips:
Let’s start with a premise that I don’t think a lot of Americans are aware of. We have 5% of the world’s population; we have 25% of the world’s known prison population. We have an incarceration rate in the United States, the world’s greatest democracy, that is five times as high as the average incarceration rate of the rest of the world. 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. I would ask my fellow senators and my fellow citizens to think about the challenges that attend these kinds of numbers when we are looking at people who have been released from prison and are reentering American society. We have hundreds and hundreds of thousands of people who are reentering American society without the transition necessary
to allow them to again become productive citizens.
The elephant in the bedroom in many discussions on the criminal justice system is the sharp increase in drug incarceration over the past three decades. In 1980, we had 41,000 drug offenders in prison; today we have more than 500,000, an increase of 1,200%. The blue disks represent the numbers in 1980; the red disks represent the numbers in 2007 and a significant percentage of those incarcerated are for possession or nonviolent offenses stemming from drug addiction and those sorts of related behavioral issues.
Salon’s Glenn Greenwald has written about Webb’s bill in a manner that illuminates both the man and the issue.
Here’s how Glenn’s article opens:
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. 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. After decades of mindless “tough-on-crime” hysteria, an increasingly irrational “drug war,” and a sprawling, privatized prison state as brutal as it is counter-productive, America has easily surpassed Japan — and virtually every other country in the world — to become what Brown University Professor Glenn Loury recently described as a “a nation of jailers” whose “prison system has grown into a leviathan unmatched in human history.”
What’s most notable about Webb’s decision to champion this cause is how honest his advocacy is. He isn’t just attempting to chip away at the safe edges of America’s oppressive prison state. His critique of what we’re doing is fundamental, not incremental.
Webb himself had an article in Parade Magazine on Sunday in which he explains and campaigns for his bill.
On Sunday, he was also interviewed for NPR
I think what Webb is doing is great – he’s leading on a major domestic issue and doing it with grace, intelligence, profound honesty and respect for the American people. But I don’t believe that in Jim Webb’s world he’s acting out of what he would perceive as courage – although the characterization is fair in the context of Beltway politics -so much as common sense. Webb is one of those rare pols who doesn’t need the job to know who he is or gain others’ respect. I’m sure he’d rather be voted out of office than end up with the kind of career as a Democratic Senator, say, Evan Bayh will be remembered for. He’s simply the kind of politician that John McCain has pretended to be – authentically so because he doesn’t compulsively court the press or need to brand himself “maverick” or “hero” to feed an ego – and then drop what is essentially an act and pander shamelessly when it looks like the path to real power. Webb is decent and honest and we need more like him, but – apropos of nothing but respect for the man and a hunch about how his character and his life experience shape his sense of himself – I’m betting he’d be embarrassed to be called courageous or heroic for doing what is merely his job as he sees it in a mileiu where one, more often than not, sits at a desk, reads briefings, ponders strategy on a long menu of policy questions, makes a few speeches, issues press releases, lunches with other guys in suits and has a gaggle of aides to help write your reports and get your coffee. It says more about us in that we are so desperate for politicians who share his intellectual qualities and depth of character. Of course, there is no doubt Webb is showing what we call “political courage”, but unfortunately that’s a very burdensome adjective.
That said, Webb’s initiative is long overdue from someone “up there” and absolutely terrific.
J. Webb: We have 5% of the worldÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s population; we have 25% of the worldÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s known prison population. …There are only two possibilities here….
Only two? Make that at least three…we’re doing a good job of catching and convicting criminals.
Of course, we could handle drug convictions like Mexico and Islamic nations. Boy, wouldn’t that deter crime? One strike and you’re out…for good.
Does it matter if Webb has thought this completely through and is correct and realistic in his analysis? Of course not. All that matters to liberals is that “he cares.” Doesn’t he make you feel good?!
Oh, yeah, Celeste. Once again, another nice group of middle-of-the-road sources — Parade and NPR.
Hey, did I tell you what Rush Limbaugh had to say?
Anyway, this describes some of the motives of left-wingers who attack anything that America does “wrong,” which to them is everything.
I carry a heavy burden trying to educate you folks.
I agree we have too many people in prison, and that minor drug offenses should have some other remedy (Sheriff Joe’s chain gangs, for a few days, for example). Ultimately, we should legalize marijuana and maybe a few others.
However, criminal predators need to be dealt with to protect the community – including low level repeat offenders.
Interesting piece on an unlikely coalition developing to support Webb –
I have to say this comments thread is the first time I’ve ever seen Parade Magazine attacked as apparently some sort of pinko rag…I guess nothing here surprises anymore.
Yeah, it’s interesting who’s picking up on this. (I meant to link to the Lynchburg paper, as it is generally conservative, but the hour was late and, quite frankly, I forgot. Here it is now. http://tinyurl.com/c6j8xh )
Woody, I do think you’ve slipped a bit off the edge with characterizing dopey old Parade magazine as leftwing.
It was too bad the Obama ducked (made fun of) the drug question the other day at his online townhall meeting.
If we legalized drugs we would save about 77 Billion per year.
“…I do think youÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ve slipped a bit off the edge…”
Celeste – you missed your calling. IMHO Hillary should immediately dispatch you to Pyongyang to deal with ‘Lil Kim.
Liberals don’t recognize liberal, because they think that’s middle of the road. Parade consistently parades liberal lines and lies. I quit reading it years ago for that reason, as have many others. Why do I have to do your research for you?
– – –
By reading and responding in this thread to my comment above, reg admits that he is liar and a fool, which I already knew, based upon his previous comment and everything else that he writes.
Apropos of nothing (or less than nothing) – Googling Powerline, Brent Bozell & RightWing News = …hmmmm, let me think!
It didn’t take long for reg to break his resolution again.
Appropos of less than nothing – Googling New York Times, Washington Post, MSNBC, CBS…. At least some sources are admittedly conservative while many in the MSM are defintely liberal but won’t admit it. With them, there’s no truth in advertising.
nothing = nothing
For a nothing liar….
The quote below is not “nothing.” Examples and links are provided for those who aren’t too stupid to follow them and too stupid to discuss it beyond attacking the source.
“Why do I have to do your research for you?”