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

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Stirrings Of Prison Reform

Look at that, a leading Democrats offers a bill on the otherwise unspeakable subject of prison reform, and contrary to popular expectation he is not forced to resign in disgrace!

Jim Webb stepped firmly on a political third rail last week when he introduced a bill to examine sweeping reforms to the criminal justice system. Yet he emerged unscathed, a sign to a political world frightened by crime and drug issues that the bar might not be electrified any more.

"After two [Joint Economic Committee] hearings and my symposium at George Mason Law Center, people from across the political and philosophical spectrum began to contact my staff," Webb told the Huffington Post. "I heard from Justice Kennedy of the Supreme Court, from prosecutors, judges, defense lawyers, former offenders, people in prison, and police on the street. All of them have told me that our system needs to be fixed, and that we need a holistic plan of how to solve it."

Webb's reform is backed by a coalition of liberals, conservatives and libertarians that couldn't have existed even a few years ago.

Webb's bill calls for the creation of a bipartisan commission to study the issue for 18 months and come back with concrete legislative recommendations.

Liberals, who for decades were labeled "soft on crime" by conservatives, crept out to embrace Webb's proposal. The bill was cosponsored by the entire Senate Democratic leadership and enthusiastically welcomed by prominent liberal bloggers. The blogosphere, dominated by younger activists, has been particularly open to calls for drug and criminal justice policy reform.

Support for the proposal has come in from the right, too. The Lynchburg News and Advance a conservative paper that publishes in the hometown of Jerry Falwell's Liberty University, weighed in favorably.

"America's prisons -- both federal and state -- are overflowing with prisoners. The United States has about 5 percent of the world's population; we have about 25 percent of the world's known prison population, Webb estimates," offered the editorial board. "Something, somewhere is seriously wrong."

It was jarring to see Webb's advocacy of major prison reform in my Sunday copy of PARADE Magazine, where Webb has published before. Yet he has unyielding and, as Glennzilla says, deeply courageous for tackling this issue which is such a blight on our national character. Something is seriously wrong with the broken prison system in California, as I've documented extensively. Decades of failure to lead, adherence to the "tough on crime" label and willingness to lock up non-violent offenders has led to some of the worst outcomes in the nation.

Most interesting about Webb's proposal is that he connected the prison crisis to our absolutely failed drug policy. After 30 years of interdiction and mass arrest, drug production is up and consumption is up, and the objectives of the so-called "war on drugs" have yet to be achieved in any substantive way. You cannot talk about prison reform without ending the characterization of drug addiction as a crime instead of a medical dependency requiring treatment.

I am hopeful that Webb has the desire to keep pushing this forward; obviously it will take years if not decades to get a sane prison policy in this country. But the need is so great.

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