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?
And 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.