Influential U.S. Sen. Jim Webb (D-Va.) plans to make prison reform a top priority in the new Congress, including clearing prison cells of low-level drug offenders so they can be used to house violent criminals, the Washington Post reported Dec. 29.
Observers say that Webb’s military background and tough reputation make him an intriguing figure to lead the charge on prison reform, perhaps insulating him from charges of coddling criminals in a law-and-order state.
“It’s perceived as a great political sin to represent any position besides ’lock ’em up and throw the key away,’” said state Sen. J. Chapman Petersen (D-Fairfax). “With Jim’s personality, he’s never going to strike somebody as being soft on crime or any other issue.”
Webb said he wants a prison system that’s tough but fair. “I think you can be a law-and-order leader and still understand that the criminal-justice system as we understand it today is broken, unfair, locking up the wrong people in many cases and not locking up the right person in many cases,” he said.
Webb decried the disproportionate incarceration of African-Americans and criticized enforcement efforts that focus too heavily on low-level drug offenders and parole violators, saying that individuals who perpetrate violence should be the main focus of law enforcement. However, Tom Riley, a spokesperson for the Office of National Drug Control Policy, called the notion that large numbers of nonviolent offenders are in prison an “urban myth.”
“It’s true, we have way too many people in prison,” he said. “But it’s not because the laws are unjust, but because there are too many people who are causing havoc and misery in the community.”
Webb wants to establish a national panel to review the nation’s criminal-justice system and propose changes. He lauded Japan’s prison system, which he said had shorter sentences but in more austere conditions, and focused on rehabilitation, not retribution.