I have been reporting on the great work of Sen. Jim Webb (D-VA) to reform the U.S. Criminal Justice/Prison System.
On 26 March 2009, Sen. Webb introduced the National Criminal Justice Commission Act of 2009. The legislation would create a blue-ribbon commission to every aspect of the U.S. criminal justice system and make comprehensive recommendations about how the process can be reformed, top-to-bottom! Why do we need such a comprehensive review?
- With 5% of the world’s population, the U.S. houses 25% of the world’s reported prisoners.
- Incarcerated drug offenders have soared 1200% since 1980.
- Racial discrimination is especially evident in drug-related criminal sentencing: African-Americans are only 12% of the U.S. population and only 14% of monthly drug users, but they are 37% of those ARRESTED on drug charges; 59% of those CONVICTED on drug charges, and 74% of the convicted drug offenders sentenced to prison! In other words, whites use most of the illegal drugs in this country, but if you are a white drug user, you are much less likely to be arrested for your drug use than a black drug user. If you are a white drug user who happens to be arrested, you are far less likely to be convicted than a black user. And, if you are unlucky enough to be a white drug user who is convicted on drug charges, you are MUCH, MUCH more likely to be given probation or sentenced to a drug rehabilitation program than to prison, but your black friend caught during the same drug raid will probably get prison time!!
- Four times as many mentally ill people are in prison as are in mental health hospitals.
- Approximately 1 million gang members reside in the U.S., many foreign-based; Mexican drug cartels operate in 230+ communities across the country.
- Post-incarceration re-entry programs are haphazard and often non-existent, undermining public safety, and making it extremely difficult for ex-offenders to become full, contributing members of society. This, in turn, leads to high rates of recidivism.
So, what can you do to help? One, subscribe to Sen. Webb’s website on the bill. Two, write your Congressional Representative, urging her or him to introduce this bill into the House of Representatives. Three, write both of your U.S. Senators, regardless of party, and urge them to co-sponsor Sen. Webb’s bill. Four, write a letter to the editor of your local paper in support of Sen. Webb’s commission and of comprehensive criminal justice/prison reform.
I like Jim Webb. Don’t get me wrong; we have disagreements on numerous issues. I believe that the Democratic Party should be at the forefront of every struggle for human rights and civil liberties and Webb believes that while Democrats were right to back the Civil Rights movement, we should have “stayed neutral” in the debates over women’s rights and gay rights. I am a pacifist and Webb is about as pro-military as one can get–although he is anti-nuke and thinks that the military should only be used as a last resort (and, thus, this former Sec. of the Navy under Reagan was against the Iraq War from before Day One).
But Webb and I agree that the heart of the Democratic Party must always be the struggle for economic justice for ordinary people. Fighting poverty, checking the abuses of wealth, and creating a broad middle class–those are the reasons Webb is a Democrat and I share them. We also share a passion for prison reform. Webb sees, rightly, that the current prison system in the U.S. is broken–and is an economic drag on the nation and a new form of racist slavery.
So, now this Democrat from the socially conservative Commonwealth of Virginia (where he narrowly won his seat in 2006), a state that is second only to TEXAS in quick-but-sloppy trials and death sentences, is pushing for Congress to undertake massive prison reform. This year. Wow. Webb wants a complete, top to bottom, review of the nation’s criminal-justice system, with an eye toward greatly reducing the prison population (we now outrank China as first in the world in per capita citizens under lock and key) and reforming the way we incarcerate.
Considering that VA is not only a “law and order” state, but that prison growth is one of the few growth industries in our current economy, Webb has guts. That’s another reason I like him. I like politicians who have the guts to take on tough issues even if they shorten their time in office. (Webb, a successful novelist, hardly needs his government paycheck.)
UPDATE: Sen. Arlen Specter (R-PA) is co-sponsoring the election, giving Webb some bi-partisan cover.
So, I got Webb’s back. How about you? Contact Pres. Obama and tell him that you support Sen. Webb’s efforts for comprehensive criminal-justice and prison reform THIS YEAR. Then contact your U.S. Representative to Congress and tell her or him the same thing. Then contact both of your U.S. Senators and tell them, too. Then, write a letter to the editor of your local newspaper and urge support. Sen. Webb is having a major public event on this initiative this weekend. By Monday, Gentle Readers, let’s try for 50,000 emails, letters, or phone calls to Congress and the White House and, at least 25,000 letters to editors of major newspapers throughout the country. That won’t be all we need to do, but it should give Sen. Webb’s efforts a major jump start. Recruit all your family and friends to do the same.
Oh, and if any of you are police or corrections or judges or work in the criminal justice system, or if you are clergy (especially prison chaplains or ministers who have spent time visiting prisoners) or have family who are either victims of crime or have been incarcerated for any reason, PLEASE include your experiences and insights in your contacts with media and Congress and the White House.