Jim Webb stepped firmly on a political third rail last week when he introduced a bill to examine sweeping reforms to the criminal justice system. Yet he emerged unscathed, a sign to a political world frightened by crime and drug issues that the bar might not be electrified any more.
"After two [Joint Economic Committee] hearings and my symposium at George Mason Law Center, people from across the political and philosophical spectrum began to contact my staff," Webb told the Huffington Post. "I heard from Justice Kennedy of the Supreme Court, from prosecutors, judges, defense lawyers, former offenders, people in prison, and police on the street. All of them have told me that our system needs to be fixed, and that we need a holistic plan of how to solve it."
Webb's reform is backed by a coalition of liberals, conservatives and libertarians that couldn't have existed even a few years ago.
Webb's bill calls for the creation of a bipartisan commission to study the issue for 18 months and come back with concrete legislative recommendations.
Liberals, who for decades were labeled "soft on crime" by conservatives, crept out to embrace Webb's proposal. The bill was cosponsored by the entire Senate Democratic leadership and enthusiastically welcomed by prominent liberal bloggers. The blogosphere, dominated by younger activists, has been particularly open to calls for drug and criminal justice policy reform.
Support for the proposal has come in from the right, too. The Lynchburg News and Advance a conservative paper that publishes in the hometown of Jerry Falwell's Liberty University, weighed in favorably.
"America's prisons -- both federal and state -- are overflowing with prisoners. The United States has about 5 percent of the world's population; we have about 25 percent of the world's known prison population, Webb estimates," offered the editorial board. "Something, somewhere is seriously wrong."
Libertarian support for reform of the criminal justice system is a given, but some traditional conservatives back the plan, too, including Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who is the ranking Republican on the subcommittee that will weigh in on the legislation, and Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Penn.), who is ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee.