January 10, 2009
Prison reform

This is what leadership looks like.

This spring, [Sen. Jim] 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," he said. "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."

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.

A disproportionate number of those who are incarcerated are black, Webb notes. African Americans make up 13 percent of the population, but they comprise more than half of all prison inmates, compared with one-third two decades ago. Today, Webb says, a black man without a high school diploma has a 60 percent chance of going to prison.

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.

If he can do that, it would be a huge achievement and a major step forward. It would also hopefully serve as an example for Texas, where the need for equivalent reform is at least as great. And hey, with the change in the Speaker's office I can even feel a little optimistic about that.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on January 10, 2009 to Crime and Punishment

YES! This is what leadership looks like and I hope Jim Webb succeeds in this bill! I have tried to get the local and State politicians to do something in Ft. Worth about jail reform and no one will touch it. I guess they are all too worried about their own personal political careers instead of truly making a difference for the community.

Posted by: Suzette Watkins on January 10, 2009 10:15 AM

It's easy to say let's dispose of "violent criminals" but we create violence through the justice system, starting with our treatment of neglected or troubled juveniles. Far too many so- called "homes" are staffed by abusers, with runaways being sent to detention centers. This initiates a vicious cycle that often leads to crime, with prison torture and abuse only teaching the necessity for more. We need much more profound reform than the superficial band-aid of removing the so-called deserving innocent: the mentally ill and drug offenders. What about those who were children when the State took charge and suffered only horrific abuse, shifted from home to school to center and back to another abusive home? But don't ask me. Ask the prisoners in Walla Walla.

Posted by: Pamela Wagner on January 20, 2009 7:48 PM

just want to say how true it is.the system punishes drug offenders and releases you identified as a criminal for life.even after 20 years.it does make life hard for these people to get employment.

Posted by: vicki on January 22, 2009 9:49 PM

I say, "Hip, Hip, Hooray," for Webb. Not many politicians are about real reform for the inmates and soon-to-be ex-offenders. Bill Clinton has already made it hard on them by forcing the 85% no parole possibility on the non-violent crimes. I'm praying and hoping that Webb is backed by the right force and bring real reform to the forefront.

Posted by: Angela Walker on May 20, 2009 1:41 PM
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