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October 5, 2007 - Baltimore Sun (MD)

[Sen.] Webb Urges Sentencing Policy Overhaul

by David Lerman

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

Virginia Sen. Jim Webb, the tough-as-nails Marine veteran, showed his softer side Thursday as he urged an overhaul of the nation's prison sentencing policies that have put 2.1 million Americans behind bars.

The freshman Democrat held a hearing of the Joint Economic Committee to call attention to the cost of "mass incarceration" policies that he said have been counterproductive in the fight against crime.

"Over the course of the period from the mid-1970's until today, the United States has embarked on one of the largest public policy experiments in our history," Webb said.

"Yet this experiment remains shockingly absent from public debate: the United States now imprisons a higher percentage of its citizens than any other country in the world."

The former Navy secretary and Vietnam veteran said he first became interested in prison policies about 25 years ago when, as a journalist for Parade Magazine, he studied the Japanese prison system.

"If you were sentenced to four or five years in a Japanese prison, you had really done something wrong," Webb said, in drawing a contrast with American mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug offenses.

To make his point, Webb recruited a panel of liberal-leaning professors and crime experts who argued that ever-increasing use of prisons is costing tens of billions of dollars while doing little to reduce crime in the long term.

"Putting greater numbers of people into prison as a way to achieve more public safety is one of the least effective ways we know to decrease crime," said Michael Jacobson, director of the Vera Institute of Justice and a former New York City correction commissioner.

No advocates of the more conservative, lock-them-up approach were asked to testify. Webb defended that decision, calling the selected panel "the best qualified people we can get to address these issues."

While acknowledging that any comprehensive reform of prison policies would be years away, Webb said, "I intend to see what we can do to rebalance the scales in this country."

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