Jim Webb’s attack on the American gulag


Jim Webb’s attack on the American gulag

On June 11, Sen. Jim Webb of Virginia introduced his bill to set up a bipartisan National Criminal Justice Commission. “We find ourselves as a nation,” Webb declared, “in the midst of a profound, deeply corrosive crisis,” vis., “the national disgrace of our present criminal justice system” and “the disintegration of this system, day by day and year by year.” This “is dramatically affecting millions of lives, draining billions of dollars from our economy, destroying notions of neighborhood and family in hundreds of communities across the country, and — most importantly — it is not making our country a safer or a fairer place.” True words. The goal of Webb’s legislation? To establish a national commission to examine and reshape America’s entire criminal justice system, the first such effort in more than 40 years. Its aims as outlined by Webb are to refocus incarceration policies on criminal activities that threaten public safety; to lower the incarceration rate; to decrease prison violence; to improve prison administration; to establish meaningful re-entry programs for former offenders; to reform drug laws; to improve treatment of the mentally ill; and to improve responses to international and domestic criminal activity by gangs and cartels. Webb compared the implications of his bleak data to the financial meltdown that has already eaten a trillion dollars of public funds and the “War on Terror” that has eaten another trillion, plus tens of thousands of lives. America has 5 percent of the world’s population but 25 percent of the world’s known prison population; 7.3 million incarcerated, on probation or on parole; 2.38 million are in prison — five times the world’s average rate. Imprisoned drug offenders are up from 41,000 in 1980 to 500,000 by 2008, a significant percentage of them with no history of violence or high-level drug activity. There is extreme disproportion in the drug sentencing — blacks have roughly the same drug-use rate as whites but are seven times more likely to go to prison where there’s hopeless overcrowding with all hope abandoned and extremely high recidivism rates. Four times as many mentally ill people are in prisons than in mental health hospitals, roughly 350,000 compared to 80,000. One very important omission from Webb’s profile of crisis was the crisis

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