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Henry Joel Simmons | September 14, 2011
Jim Webb is in and out of prisons at a rapid rate. The fiery Virginia senator is by no means a criminal, but for thirty years now he has been touring prisons and asking questions.
As a conservative democrat who was awarded the Navy Cross for extraordinary heroism in the Vietnam War, served as Secretary of the Navy under President Reagan, and once criticized affirmative action as “state-sponsored racism,” Webb may not seem to fit the profile of most criminal justice reform champions. Yet according to this week’s Newsweek, Senator Webb is leading the charge admirably.
Webb, a man who is committed to “preserving fairness while also preserving discipline,” crunched the numbers, and found that the United States is responsible for 25% of the world’s incarcerated population, but only 5% of the total population. He also found that Japan imprisons 63 people per 100,000 citizens, compared to the United States’ 743. As Senator Webb likes to put it, “Either we have the most evil people on earth living in the U.S., or we are doing something dramatically wrong in terms of how we approach the issue of criminal justice.” He later saw the recidivism figures, along with the post-release employment figures, and he decided that something needed to change.
In 2009, Webb introduced the National Criminal Justice Commission Act, which would conduct the first review of national crime policy in forty-five years. He has been fighting with “stress, insanity, and gnashing of teeth” to get it passed ever since.
Initially, says Webb, the conservative senators “assumed this was all about drugs…so there was hesitation.” But with state budgets struggling, senators are seeing the rapid growth in corrections as a place where real spending cuts can be made without harming public safety. Webb’s plan now has thirty-nine cosponsors (including a number of conservatives, along with numerous conservative interest groups), and he estimates that he has the required two-thirds majority in line to pass it.