WASHINGTON -- Alarmed by prisons that are clogged with mentally ill people, drug users and other non-violent offenders while well-armed gangs and drug lords often go unpunished, Virginia Sen. Jim Webb will launch a wide-ranging and politically risky campaign today to overhaul the nation's criminal justice system.
With nearly 2.4 million Americans now behind bars, Webb said, "our incarceration rate has exploded.... But at the same time we aren't really solving the problems."
With backing from senior Democratic senators and quiet encouragement from President Barack Obama, Webb will introduce legislation to create a bipartisan commission on criminal justice reform.
Webb said he wants the commission to educate itself and then the American public on some little-understood realities about crime and punishment.
His bill reads like an indictment of the current system, noting that the United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world, that minorities make up a disproportionately large share of prison populations, and that half of prisoners will return to prison within three years of release.
Webb said he hopes that once people begin to understand that such a high rate of imprisonment has done little to stop violent crime or drug trafficking, they'll support changes.
The proposal is the product of two years of study by Webb and his staff. A pair of hearings and a half-day convocation Webb led on the subject last fall at George Mason University led to a flood of inquiries from prosecutors, defense lawyers, crime victims, judges and prison administrators across the country, Webb said.
"It was like tapping a nerve." And from all quarters, he said, the message was: "This is a mess. This is just a mess. And we have to figure out a way to fix it."
Webb's bill does not suggest specific reforms but directs the commission to make suggestions that would reduce incarceration rates and keep mental patients and nonviolent offenders from going to prison.
The commission could be the most ambitious attempt to re-examine and reform the criminal justice system since the 1960s, said Mark Mauer, executive director of the Sentencing Project, a nonprofit group that supports reducing incarceration rates.
"It is a huge undertaking," he said.
Webb has briefed Obama's staff on the plan and discussed it with the president earlier this week. He has secured pledges of support from Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada and Democratic whip Dick Durbin of Illinois and expressions of interest from prominent Republicans, including Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, the ranking GOP member of the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Webb also has talked the issue over with Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy, who invited Webb to his office and shared the texts of several speeches voicing his own concern about criminal sentencing.
The senator said Kennedy told him that too many judges "don't understand prisons" and "don't pay that much attention to what happens after we've moved the cases."
Webb gained national attention last year for his successful effort to secure a new GI Bill underwriting college costs for veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. For a time, he was considered a prospect to run for vice president on the Obama-led Democratic ticket.
After winning his Senate seat by a razor-thin margin in 2006, "he's improved his standing" with Virginia voters, said Mark Rozell, a political scientist at George Mason University. "He's now seen as a strong incumbent."
But Rozell added that "being hard on crime is the politically safe place to be.... There's just not a lot of public sentiment out there to do something about incarceration time.
"Whether he's doing the right thing or not, politically it's risky."
Webb, a lawyer, said his interest in the issue goes back to his days as a Marine Corps officer, sitting on courts-martial, and it was honed during law school when he did volunteer work on behalf of a young black Marine accused of war crimes in Vietnam.
Later, as a freelance journalist working for Parade magazine, Webb toured prisons in Japan and was struck by how different that country's approach to offenders is from America's, he said. With a population half that of the United States, Japan had just 40,000 people in prisons and jails, he said; the U.S. system had more than 500,000 locked up.
That was 25 years ago; today's prison population is nearly five times as large.
Webb has served as Navy secretary and written several books since then but still does occasional articles for Parade. He wrote a cover story on his prison initiative for Sunday's editions.
He said he expects some political blow-back, particularly from state Republicans.
"Every statement I've ever made on this, every forum I've had, I've said we want to put those who perpetrate violence, those who commit crime as a way of life... we want those people to go to jail," Webb said.
His concern is that "we've spent so much energy chasing down the little guy that we haven't been able to focus properly on the violence and the transnational organized crime that really threaten us."
Contact Dale Eisman at (703) 913-9872 or email@example.com
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