Is Sen. Webb planning to be a single-termer?

I have to wonder if perhaps Sen. Jim Webb is planning to spend just a single session in the U.S. Senate. His mission to totally overhaul the criminal justice system is something approaching political suicide. It also shows the man has balls of steel.

Since the 1970s, politicians have all agreed that there’s no crime that shouldn’t have the punishment made more severe. A month for chicken thievery? Make it three. A year for shoplifting? Make it five. Five years for possession of LSD? Make it ten. Campaign promises of harsher penalties never have dollar values attached to them, and they’re used to show that the candidate is “tough on crime.” And any candidate suggesting that we do otherwise is a liberal sissy who wants to coddle criminals. Year after year, the punishments become more severe, and yet the punishments often bear no relationship to the severity of the crimes and do nothing to correct the offending behavior. One in six prisoners is mentally ill. One third of prisoners are in for a drug offense—for a crime in which they harmed nobody but themselves (if that). And “three strikes you’re out” laws are about the dumbest thing to emerge from this trend. We’re basing our criminal justice system on baseball? Really? What if four strikes were necessary for an out?

James WebbAnd so the ranks of our prisons have swelled, and now the United States incarcerates a greater percentage of its citizens than any other nation in the world. We’ve got 5% of the world’s population and 25% of its prisoners. The global average is 158 prisoners per 100,000 citizens; we’ve got 756. One out of every 31 American adults is behind bars, on probation, or parole. It’s madness. Based on these figures, Sen. Webb comes to a very reasonable conclusion:

With so many of our citizens in prison compared with the rest of the world, there are only two possibilities: Either we are home to the most evil people on earth or we are doing something different—and vastly counterproductive.

Webb will get nothing but grief for this. His political strategists must have told him in a half dozen ways how foolish that this is. The prison unions will hate him for it. The powerful private companies that own the prisons will be eager to fund his opponent. Republicans will tag him as a criminal-coddler. Hell, ex-felons can’t even vote in Virginia, so he won’t even earn votes from the folks that he gets out of prison. The sort of overhaul that he’s proposing will require a huge amount of work on his part, which will prevent him from introducing the sort of brochure bills that get legislators reelected.

If Webb is serious about this—and I believe that he is—I can’t see that he’s planning to run again in 2012. But if he’s going to effect the sort of change that he’s proposing, that seems like a pretty good plan.

Published by Waldo Jaquith

Waldo Jaquith (JAKE-with) is an open government technologist who lives near Char­lottes­­ville, VA, USA. more »

18 replies on “Is Sen. Webb planning to be a single-termer?”

  1. Ex-felons can get their right to vote back in Virginia.

    Webb is a hero and may save our country by doing this. We are using our criminal justice system to increase the divides in our country and have for many years. We have decided that it is okay for some people to be raped, tortured (see New Yorker article on the use of solitary confinement in our prisons, just out), thrown away and derided over addiction, crimes arising out of poverty/hunger/need, prisoners who are innocent but had no decent representation, prisoners who die due to lack of medical care in prison, people, human beings who we sometime back decided were not human. Whenever we decide any large group is not human we have lost our way as a society, past and present.
    I admire the heck out of Jim Webb. Never thought I would see someone have the courage and selflessness to take this on in my lifetime.

  2. from where I sit. And that is on the outside looking in. I see a man that took Washington on with both barrels loaded. He went to Washington to Represent Virginia with a mission and by George he is doing it. I don’t think they knew what Webb was capable of. He had made friends on both sides of the isles. But if you look at the jail system in some ways think about some of the small crimes. Here you have a person who gets out then by some change commits another crime and where are they. Right back in there. They have a roof over there head. Health care. Dental care. 3 meals a day. Everything a person would want. and the catch. Free of charge to that person. Sometimes I wonder about some of these folks that are in jail. I do however get ticked when they say they are mentally ill when they are not. I have a mentally disabled son. I am an advocated for all disabled people. When someone uses that as an excuse for their crime. It really galls me. Then to find some shrink to back them up. That is even worse. I guess $$ can buy anyone.

  3. Ex-felons can get their right to vote back in Virginia.

    They can, but it’s so difficult and time-consuming that vanishingly few manage it. We’re one of the very few states in the nation that maintain this Jim Crow-era practice.

  4. This post comes 3 years after trusted political advisers told Jim Webb that he had, at best, a 15% chance of beating incumbent Senator, and Presidential favorite George Allen. Betting against Jim Webb is itself a dicey proposition.

    The Department of Corrections is Virginia’s largest bureaucracy. Nearly 7% of Virginia’s budget goes to prisons. Virginia’s prison costs have now reached $1.4 Billion per year, doubling since 2001. That doesn’t include the loss of revenues from former taxpayers now locked up, or their families left to the public dole.

    With a record of failure, Conservatives face a hard choice – will they incite fear of criminals or outrage against bloated, expensive prison bureaucracies? So far Boss Limbaugh has not weighed in. oh wait…

  5. 1.4 billion just in Virginia? I didn’t know it was that high. And all the additional costs you mention, what we could do with just some of that money for kids to keep them well fed, well educated, more after school programs, mentors, more job training for people who lose their jobs, add medially needy to our Medicaid plan–we rank very low in Medicaid because of not having this in our plan besides our already very low income requirement, 80% of poverty level, beneath the Federal Poverty Level and they almost lowered it to 74% this year if the stimulus money hadn’t required that they not-re-entry programs that work…..

  6. …With 2.25 million people incarcerated in approximately five thousand prisons and jails, the combined expenditures of local governments, state governments, and the federal government for law enforcement and corrections personnel totals over $200 billion.

    Congressional Joint Economic Committee, 4 October 2007.

    Do you think we could find some cost savings in that $200 billion/year?

  7. “Balls of steel”?

    More like “brains of mush.”

    Yeah, one of the awesome things about being an honest-to-God War Hero is that you get to live the rest of your life without needing to posture or act Angry All The Time so that maybe people won’t question your masculinity. Jim Webb doesn’t need one of our Senate seats to stroke his self esteem–he doesn’t have anything to prove to anyone. He also doesn’t to act like he’s “tough on crime” — Jim Webb is simply tough.

  8. Or perhaps (considering that the bill has 19 cosponsors, including all the Senate Democratic leadership, as well as Lindsey Graham and Arlen Specter), they’ve finally taken a small step toward figuring out that voters like leaders who have deeply held principles that they’re willing to act on and educate voters about, rather than just pandering.

    I know, I’m a crazy optimist…

  9. Yeah, while I don’t have much doubt that this’ll come up in his reelection campaign (should Webb have one), I don’t know which side will bring it up. Like Jim E-H points out, the bill has 19 cosponsors, including some senior Republicans. Though Webb has firmly made contact with the third rail, it seems it’s not electrified anymore.

    Not to say people like our own James Young won’t be screaming bloody murder at this attempt at sane governance, but I don’t think right-wing ideologues were going to be voting for Webb anyway.

  10. I hope he does run again. As Jim E-H says, we like leaders with firm, deeply held principles. Webb has them, and acts on them. I think he’d be a strong candidate in 2012 if he wants to. Virginia voters will hopefully know that this is the role he wants – to make changes on the things that matter.

    Doesn’t hurt that he pushed through the new GI bill either.

  11. >>>They can, but it’s so difficult and time-consuming that vanishingly few manage it. We’re one of the very few states in the nation that maintain this Jim Crow-era practice.

    Two states: Virginia, and Kentucky. Even Texas changed its law. This is one of the issues that LG candidate Mike Signer is running on. Permanent disenfranchisement of felons hurts our democracy. It’s good to see good candidates and elected officials proposing and preparing to fight for serious changes to our criminal justice system.

  12. Exactly the kind of principled leadership Congress needs more of.
    I am sick of bloated clock punchers who follow the latest public opinion polls and never step out in front of an issue. To my mind, Webb is paving the way to cementing his hold on the office, should he want it.

  13. Bobby Kennedy’s political advisors used to get on his case all the time because he insisted on spending his time and political capital on such “no win” causes as rural poverty and inner-city blight. During his presidential campaign he even took time to visit Native American reservations because of his concern about the plight of Native peoples. Needless to say, there weren’t/aren’t many votes to be mined on Native American reservations. But people like Bobby Kennedy and Jim Webb aren’t in politics because they believe in spinning and winning at all costs. They are in politics to correct wrongs. I disagree that this necessarily amounts to “political suicide.” In fact, I hope and expect that Webb’s acts of courage will be rewarded by Virginia voters if/when he decides to seek re-election. We need more heroes in politics and fewer divas.

  14. I don’t think this is political suicide anymore. Once upon a time, probably. Don’t forget that this is also the guy responsible for the Webb GI Bill. And if he runs for reelection, a few ads about that would go a long way. Start asking around and you’ll find that most people in Virginia know someone whose son or daughter came back from fighting in Iraq and received a good education because of what Jim Webb got done in the Senate. We have a whole lot of military personnel in Virginia and a whole lot of combat veterans who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan. Webb would get a whole lot more votes from this than he might lose for having stood up against the prison system.

  15. Senator Webb is the perfect person to push this issue forward. The fact that he’s not a career politician, and that he doesn’t feel he has to prove himself by further political advancement (he ruled out the VP spot, probably before he could have known whether he had a chance at getting it) makes it possible for him to take a game-changing risk like this.

    But more to the point, he has an image that will force people to re-evaluate the “liberal sissy” label that is usually the knee-jerk reaction of any conservative (or fox news viewer, or limbaugh listener, etc.). For God’s sake, the man carried a missile with him on the campaign trail as a counter to George Allen’s football. If he is the face of the prison reform movement, he’ll give cover to other Democrats looking to support this truly just cause but afraid of falling into the age-old pigeon-hole dichotomy between “sissy liberal” and “tough conservative”. More like “smart Democrat” vs. “mean-spirited Republican grandstanding for votes at the expense of the American taxpayer and the criminal justice system”.

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