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December 29, 2008

Senator Jim Webb continues his important campaign for serious sentencing and prison reforms

Regular readers know from prior posts that I am a huge fan of Senator Jim Webb's commitment to serious sentencing and prison reform.  As revealed by new this exciting article from today's Washington Post, headlined "Webb Sets His Sights On Prison Reform: Senator Proposes National Panel," my affinity for the good Senator remains well-justified.  Here are some details from the article:

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.

State Sen. Ken Cuccinelli II (R-Fairfax), who is running for attorney general, said the initiative sounds "out of line" with the desires of people in Virginia but not necessarily surprising for Webb. The senator, he said, "is more emotion than brain in terms of what leads his agenda."...

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.

That point of view has gained steam with members of both parties. Virginia Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) recently proposed earlier release for some prisoners convicted of nonviolent crimes as a cost-cutting measure.  But the movement is alarming to drug enforcement advocates. Tom Riley, spokesman for the Office of National Drug Policy Initiatives, said it has become an "urban myth" that the nation imprisons vast numbers of low-level drug offenders.

I have so many positive reactions to the news that Senator Webb remains eager to make a priority of sentencing and prison reform.  But I have so many negative reactions to how this Post article makes Senator Webb seem like an odd duck for having this priority.  For a nation supposedly committed to freedom and liberty, I think the odd ducks are those Americans not seriously concerned about the status of the US as the world's leader in incarceration.

Moreover, as regular readers of this blog know well, though too few federal lawmakers are concerned with overflowing prisons, due to an ailing economy and tight budgets nearly every state lawmaker is deeply concerned about how best to cut prison populations without hurting public safety.  I hope that Senator Webb's panel would start with a set of immediate action initiative to identify groups of prisoners who might be effectively released without a serious risk to public safety.

Some related posts about prison nation as a pressing problem: 

Some related posts Senator Webb's great work and the failings of other national politicians:

December 29, 2008 at 02:38 PM | Permalink

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Comments

Doug and Jimmy, sittin' in a tree...K-I-S-S-I-N-G!!

Posted by: | Dec 29, 2008 3:40:23 PM

State Sen. Ken Cuccinelli II (R-Fairfax), who is running for attorney general, said the initiative sounds "out of line" with the desires of people in Virginia but not necessarily surprising for Webb. The senator, he said, "is more emotion than brain in terms of what leads his agenda."...

Anytime a Republican says something, ask yourself, is this projection? Then, in this case, ask yourself, who predominately runs on the emotional fear and loathing platform?

Posted by: George | Dec 29, 2008 5:08:05 PM

Jim Webb has a top notch mind and independent spirit and won't hold his finger in the wind to formulate his opinions.

Over the past 40 years our justice system has evolved and acquired a harshness that is detrimental to the fabric of our civilization. It has become a corrosive force. I don't need to see any more than a small female suspect being escorted from a jail cell to court by half a dozen law enforcement officers. She is shackled on her ankles with hands cuffed behind her back wearing on orange jump suit. It is commonly known that she has been strip searched and orifices have been probed. She has not yet been convicted of anything.

If we have one in every 100 citizens in prison with an equal number on probation or parole, it is quite easy to see that this cannot continue without serious consequences. I believe that the War on Drugs has been the major contributor to this unfortunate state.

Posted by: beth curtis | Dec 29, 2008 9:24:44 PM

I think the real underlying issue is the incentives presented to LEAs. I have found SCJ Scalia's recent comments about the "professionalization" of the police force at a national level quite intriguing in this regard.

"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."

This true but it fails to answer the question, why? The truth of the matter is that police pay and incentives are based upon numbers, not quality. Catching gang members, like child porn producers, is difficult and time consuming work. It is simply *easier* (and I can't emphasize that word enough) to go after low-level possession crimes. People want to see their cops "on the street". But beat work is not going to allow you to catch the producers or either drugs or child porn.

This is the main reason why I remain unconvinced of the utility of applying market analogies to illegal crimes. It is always easier to catch consumers than it is to catch producers, despite the fact that catching one producer has more impact than catching 100 consumers. But cops aren't rated on how many big fish the catch; they are rated on how many tickets the write, how many arrests they make, how many crimes they solve regardless if that makes the community "safer" or not.

Posted by: Daniel | Dec 31, 2008 1:19:55 PM

Private Practice Attorney & Citizen of Virginia

The Commonwealth of Virginia is spending approximately $91,747,000.00 per year incarcerating technical probation and parole violators in its prisons.

• As of December 2007 the prison population was 38,555 inmates; each year 1,340 prisoners are added for a total of approximately 39,895 prisoners as of December 2008
• It is estimated that 10% of the prison population are technical violators
• The average cost of incarceration is $23,000 per year per inmate
• Technical violators serve a median of 22.4 months in prison

3,989 x 23,000 = $91,747,000.00 PER YEAR
OR
$7,645,583.30 PER MONTH
OR
$171,261,066.00 EVERY 22.4 MONTHS

Additionally, the Virginia Parole Board (August – October 2008) issued 1,306 Parole Decisions:

• 1,078 Paroles were Not Granted
• 127 Paroles were Revoked
• 82 Paroles were Granted
• 14 Paroles were Continued on parole
• 5 Paroles were Discharged

92% of the Parole Decisions were Not Granted/Revoked
90% of Paroles were Revoked as opposed to Continued
6% of Paroles were Granted

• If the Parole Board renders 5224 per year and granted/continued parole in 20% of its cases, 1044 people per year could be released

1044 x 23,000 = $24,012,000.00 PER YEAR

VIRGINIA is WASTING:

91,747,000.00 + 24,012,000.00 = $115,759,000.00


Posted by: Tina McCree Orr | Jan 14, 2009 11:51:32 AM

Iam a middleclass housewife in Pa. I was sentenced to 5 months in jail for 3 DUIs. Luckily, I was able to go out to work because I had a job. Not many of the inmates did. While there I observed many of the woman did have some type of mental illness. Many were waiting months to find out their sentences, while sitting and doing nothing all day, just waiting. Each prisoner was treated differently by the system. In my case there were several with same DUIs who got 1 year while several received a few weekends. While some of the women may pose a threat outside, many did not. Half of the kids in there were there for probation violation. Here is a case ofcatch-22. They are expected to go out, get a job to pay their fines. Most do not have the resourses to get a job or transportation to get there. Some have no home to go back to so they end up back on the streets. I am lucky, I have a job but not near to public transportation. My liscense was suspended for an unbelievable 5 years. While I know I was wrong it seems that Pendot takes it upon themselves to over-ride a Judges decision who at the time of my trial gave me a 1 year liscens suspension. Many states are now using the Breathelizer so people do not lose their jobs, which is the case for many. There are so many in jail who should not be there, I unfortunately witnessed it. It seems is all a case of Politics.

Posted by: Elaine | Mar 27, 2009 4:21:45 PM

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