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September 12, 2011

An interesting update on Senator Webb's (so-far failed) last crusade

It has been quite some since I blogged about Senator Jim Webb's proposal for creating a national crime commission (which, as reported here, was introduced as a Senate bill way back in March 2009).  I had assumed that Senator Webb's pending retirement was one of many reasons why the Senate was likely to pass Webb's bill.  However, this new Newsweek piece, headlined "Jim Webb's Last Crusade," not only explains the genesis of Webb's proposal but also suggests it may still have some life in it:

“The problem with Congress is that you can get stalled solving any one small aspect of this problem,” Webb says.  “Crack alone took 16 years.”  At the same time, he reasoned that sweeping legislation would polarize rather than galvanize, and would become a target for Republicans and an albatross for Democrats.  Webb settled, instead, on a stepping-stone strategy: a bipartisan panel tasked with conducting a head-to-toe review of the U.S. criminal-justice system and then recommending cost-effective, data-driven, state-based reforms.  Asked about the obvious objection — that legislators will simply ignore whatever inconvenient truths his blue-ribbon board exhumes — Webb is unmoved.  “We’re not looking for a debating society here,” he snaps.  “This is a $14 million bet.  And the alternative — addressing one piece at a time — doesn’t work.”

For the past two and a half years, Webb’s legislation has lingered in Senate limbo; Oklahoma Sen. Tom Coburn blocked the initial version, and a later iteration was included in last year’s failed omnibus spending package.  (A mirror bill passed the House in 2010.) But time may be on Webb’s side.  Initially, conservatives “assumed this was all about drugs,” the senator says, “so there was hesitation.”  As the recovery faltered, however, Republicans began to realize that prison spending, which is the fastest-growing state budget item behind Medicaid, was ripe for a trim.  As a result, influential GOP governors such as Bobby Jindal and Mitch Daniels are now working to reduce recidivism, soften sentences, and save money in their home states, while Right on Crime, a new conservative group backed by Newt Gingrich, Jeb Bush, and Grover Norquist, is championing reform on the national stage.  “People who would’ve been skeptical have gotten on board,” says Webb, noting that he has convinced Republican Sens. Lindsey Graham, Jeff Sessions, and Orrin Hatch to support his bill.  “And deficits brought them in.”  The fact that America’s violent-crime rate has continued to decline during the recession — it’s now at its lowest level in 40 years — only helps Webb’s cause, as does his looming retirement.  “There was a lot of concern among Republicans about whether passing this bill would help me win reelection,” he says, grinning. “So that’s off the table.”...

Webb believes he has “two thirds” of the Senate on his side, and that his only remaining roadblock is “getting the bill to the floor.”  He’s probably right: so far, his plan has earned the backing of 39 cosponsors and more than 100 outside organizations, including the National Sheriff’s Association, and President Obama has been “supportive.” (In February they “discussed doing it as a presidential commission” should the bill fail.)  But even if the National Criminal Justice Commission Act were to pass tomorrow, its author would leave office long before any recommendations rolled in.  The timing suggests a last crusade of sorts: an old soldier’s final fight.  On his way out of the Fairfax facility, Webb dismisses this interpretation with a characteristic grunt.  “I don’t do last acts,” he says.  But it is clear, as he continues, that criminal-justice reform has, for him, become something larger than just another piece of legislation. “I didn’t do this for political reasons,” Webb says. “I’m a novelist, basically. What do you do with a novel?  You take a complex issue and you think your way through it.  I’ve taken on the same types of issues as a senator and worked to sort them out.  This is one that needs to be done.”

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September 12, 2011 at 08:29 AM | Permalink

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Has this bill even been introduced in the House?

Posted by: Bill Otis | Sep 12, 2011 9:26:20 AM

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