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July 13, 2009

Whither the Webb reform bill ... does it weather or wither?

I just discovered this long piece from last week's Washington Post discussing Senator Jim Webb and his on-going efforts to engineer some effective criminal justice reforms.  The piece is headlined "Structuring Sentences: Jim Webb Puts His Writerly Skills to Work in a Modest Proposal: Reform The Nation's Prisons — And Drug Laws," as these passages of the article prompts the question of this post's title:

When he decided to propose a massive reexamination of U.S. prisons and criminal laws this past spring, he gave the usual floor speech. Whereas other senators may get confined to that usually empty chamber and its daytime C-SPAN audience, Webb went on from there to state his case by writing a Parade magazine cover story titled "Why We Must Fix Our Prisons," talking directly to its 30 million-plus Sunday readers....

On its face, Webb's proposal is bolder in rhetoric than in practice, to put it mildly.  He wants to — brace yourselves — form a bipartisan commission!  (The proposal is included in a bill that has attracted more than two dozen co-sponsors, but has yet to be voted on.)  The commission is supposed to, among other things, come up with recommendations for reducing the overall incarceration rate, decreasing prison violence and improving treatment of mental illness inside and outside prisons....

Little public opposition has emerged, though that might have more to do with the bill's uncertain status than anything else.  In the meantime, Webb says he's been contacted about his proposal by the president and Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy, both of whom gave encouraging signals. And he is quietly amassing an eclectic band of supporters, ranging from the influential — Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada — to the surprising — conservative Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina.

Because Webb's bill is styled in a way that should make it relatively non-controversial, I am not surprised that little public opposition to the bill has emerged.  I am a bit surprised, however, that four months after its introduction, it seems to lack any of the momentum needed to become a reality anytime soon.

For various reasons, I think the current sentencing reform talk coming from the Justice Department (basics here and here) has much more short-term potential to impact sentencing law and policy than does Webb's bill.  Still, the status and future of Webb's bill may serve as a useful window on current crime and punishment politics.

Some related old and new posts:

July 13, 2009 at 09:50 AM | Permalink


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Jim Webb is an individual with unique qualities. He is a first rate intellect with great political skills and common sense. He rather exudes confidence. I don't doubt that his ideas are comprehensive and bold.

That said, the bi partisan commission is a brilliant first step. It is so political and reeks of ponderous political, academic, and bureaucratic parsing. How else do you get the attention of these folks? They need to feel they have skin in the game.

In the mean time, in the reform community, the beat goes on. When all the interest groups have had their day in the sun something big can happen. The biggest push back will come from the criminal justice industry. After all these, years this group has a considerable financial interest in business as usual.

I've kind of depressed myself with this post. I do believe he's the biggest and most credible player. Reform can't come quickly enough for some of us.

Posted by: bcth | Jul 13, 2009 11:08:55 AM

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