Webb Faces Up to the U.S. Incarceration Machine, Seeks Re-thinking the War on Drugs
More than 1 in 100 adults in the United States are now behind bars. 1 in 31 are in prison, probation or parole. The U.S. with 5% of the world’s population now has 25% of the world’s prisoners. Incarceration of drug offenders has risen 1,200% since 1980 from 41,000 to 500,000. The appetite of the American prison machine is voracious. Each year 7 million Americans are jailed and approximately 700,000 go on to serve prison sentences. When a racial prism is added to these numbers the stark reality of racial unfairness is impossible to deny. And now women and girls are the fastest growing group of prisoners.
Senator Jim Webb of Virginia looks at these numbers and in a speech on the Senate floor wondered out loud: “Either we have the most evil people on Earth living in the United States, or we are doing something dramatically wrong.” He has introduced a bill, which already has 19 co-sponsors including Republicans and Democrats (including the top three Republicans on the Judiciary Committee), that will answer that question. It sets up a national commission, the National Criminal Justice Commission, which will look at ways to reduce the prison population including rethinking drug policy. The chairman will be appointed by President Barack Obama who reportedly has called Webb twice to commend this effort.
When Webb ran for the U.S. senate he raised the need for criminal justice reform during the campaign. Many told him it was a third rail of politics that would make his already improbable election impossible. But, Webb surprised the country and turned red state Virginia blue. At a meeting this week in Washington, DC attended by 70 advocates for criminal justice and drug policy reform his staff told us that this issue is a “passion for Senator Webb” that is of “deep importance” and that he has been concerned about “for decades.” Webb’s goal, they told us, was to see this bill “enacted this year.”