Jim Webb Takes on Prison Reform

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jim_webb_saluting.jpg Senator Jim Webb (D-VA) is about to take on one of the most thankless issues in America: prison reform. Here’s the Washington Post, explaining Webb’s interest:

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.

It may seem like a strange passion for a former military man from a state that is 75 percent white and that, pre-Obama, was proudly conservative. But this effort may be successful precisely because people assume the gruff, hard-charging Webb is a law-and-order type. It would have less credibility if the leader on this issue came out of the Congressional Black Caucus, a scenario that would probably create wrongheaded whispers about how the priorities of likely-to-be-incarcerated young black men were being placed above America’s safety. (Of course, a Senate effort couldn’t be led by a member of the Congressional Black Caucus. There are currently zero black senators.)

But Webb may have to go it alone on this issue, due to the fact that anyone who suggests improving our truly lamentable prison system gets quickly labeled as “soft on crime.” We’ll soon see if he has the savviness and political clout to make something happen. And have no doubt, something must happen. As Mother Jones illustrated in our July/August 2008 cover package called “SLAMMED,” the state of America’s prisons is a disgrace, and an unsustainable one at that. If you didn’t know, click the link and get educated.

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