As featured on p. 218 of "Bloggers on the Bus," under the name "a MyDD blogger."

Monday, December 29, 2008

Don't Get Too Lonely, Jim

Jim Webb has been a fairly disappointing conservative Democrat thus far in the US Senate, but his profile and life experience gives him an opportunity to take on "third rail" issues in ways that other politicians can't. I'm delighted that he's belatedly begun one of these crusades with the issue of prison reform.

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."

It is a gamble for Webb, a fiery and cerebral Democrat from a staunchly law-and-order state. Virginia abolished parole in 1995, and it trails only Texas in the number of people it has executed. Moreover, as the country struggles with two wars overseas and an ailing economy, overflowing prisons are the last thing on many lawmakers' minds.

But Webb has never been one to rely on polls or political indicators to guide his way. He seems instead to charge ahead on projects that he has decided are worthy of his time, regardless of how they play -- or even whether they represent the priorities of the state he represents.

There is no more easily demagogued issue in America that prison reform. Conservatives find it unacceptable that we should do anything other than warehouse prisoners for as long as humanly possible (unless they are Republican officeholders, that is), and will assail anyone with a contrary view as being insufficiently "tough on crime." As a result, the prison-industrial complex is one of the fastest-growing in the nation, with overcrowding persisting throughout the country and skyrocketing costs of incarceration. We have 2.3 million Americans in jail, a higher percentage than any country on Earth, and a shocking amount of them are inside for violating parole or a low-level drug offense, when tax dollars could be spent much better treating and rehabilitating them. Not to mention that longer sentences and overcrowding hamper what meager rehab programs exist, sending recidivism rates soaring and turning jails into colleges for harder crime. And any thought given to the rights and well-being of the prisoner is met with derision. Why, who cares if there's arsenic in their drinking water, they should have thought about that before they broke the law!

The drinking water pumped from two wells at Kern Valley State Prison contained arsenic, a known cause of cancer, in amounts far higher than a federal safety standard soon to take effect.

Yet today, nearly three years after missing the government's deadline to reduce the arsenic levels, the state has no concrete plans or funding to do so. Officials spent $629,000 to design a filtration system and then decided not to build it, while neglecting to inform staff and inmates that they were consuming contaminated water.

After the prison finally posted notices last April on orders from the state Department of Public Health, the inmates continued drinking the water, under protest.

"We have no choice," said Larry Tillman, 38, who was serving time for burglary. "We should at the very least receive bottled water, or truck in water from another city."

You're a terrorist-coddler if you try to raise this issue.

Webb's ideas are pretty solid:

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.

Webb isn't known to shy from a fight. He said this spring that he'll introduce legislation that creates a national panel to recommend ways to overhaul the criminal justice system [...] Webb said, the United States could learn from the Japanese system. In his book, "A Time to Fight," he wrote that the Japanese focused less on retribution. Sentences were short, and inmates often left prison with marketable job skills. Ironically, he said, the system was modeled on philosophies pioneered by Americans, who he says have since lost their way on the matter.

Webb believes he can guide the nation back. "Contrary to so much of today's political rhetoric," he wrote, "to do so would be an act not of weakness but of strength."

Though I don't agree with his framing of it as about "locking up the right people instead of the wrong people," Webb deserves credit for carrying this issue. However, I doubt he'll find many partners. Right now it's too politically volatile at the national level to make the completely sound point that trapping millions of citizens in a cycle of incarceration and addiction harms our economy as much as our crime rate. In the states there are many groundbreaking programs that return the corrections system to what should be its core role of rehabilitation and job training and returning prisoners back to civil society with survival skills. It's cheaper in the long run and it reduces the explosion of corrections in state budgets. But at the national level, I guess it's not very serious to talk about prison reform.

I've asked the Obama transition team about their perspective on criminal justice and prison reform at their "Open for Questions" virtual town hall. I'll let you know if I get a response.

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