Sen. Webb: Prisons a 'national disgrace,' must be reformed
Stephen C. Webster
Published: Thursday March 26, 2009

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Proposed commission would seek to bring prison populations down, 'overhaul drug criminalization'

Even as President Barack Obama slapped down the hopes of American marijuana consumers as to his position on legalization, Senator Jim Webb (D-Va) was quietly preparing to introduce major legislation which has the potential to dramatically alter US drug laws.

Calling the US criminal justice system "a national disgrace," two US senators called for a top-to-bottom review with an eye on reforms aimed at reducing America's vast prison population.

Senator Webb, backed by Republican Senator Arlen Specter, introduced legislation to create a blue-ribbon panel that would conduct an 18-month assessment and offer concrete recommendations for reform.

Sen. Webb's legislation enjoys not just bipartisan support, but "quiet encouragement from President Barack Obama," reported The Virginian-Pilot.

"America's criminal justice system has deteriorated to the point that it is a national disgrace," Webb said, noting that the United States has five percent of the world's population but 25 percent of the world's prisoners.

According to a document released by Sen. Webb's office, "Its task will be to propose concrete, wide-ranging reforms to responsibly reduce the overall incarceration rate; improve federal and local responses to international and domestic gang violence; restructure our approach to drug policy; improve the treatment of mental illness; improve prison administration, and establish a system for reintegrating ex-offenders."

The Virginia lawmaker noted soaring numbers of drug offenders in prison, and charged that four times more mentally ill people are incarcerated than are in mental health hospitals.

"We are doing something drastically wrong," said Webb, whose plan also aims to improve the US response to armed gangs, especially drug-related groups, as it seeks to bring the prison population down from about 2.4 million people.

"The high-level commission created by the National Criminal Justice Commission Act of 2009 legislation will be comprised of experts in fields including criminal justice, law enforcement, public heath, national security, prison administration, social services, prisoner reentry, and victims' rights," read a statement from Webb's office. "It will be led by a chairperson to be appointed by the President. The Majority and Minority Leaders in the House and Senate, and the Democratic and Republican Governors Associations will appoint the remaining members of the commission."

About five million people are on probation or parole.

"We are not protecting our citizens from the increasing danger of criminals who perpetrate violence and intimidation as a way of life, and we are locking up too many people who do not belong in jail," said Webb.

"Despite the president's flippant comments today, the grievous harms of marijuana prohibition are no laughing matter," said Jack Cole, a former undercover narcotics officer and founding member of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, in a statement to RAW STORY. "Certainly, the 800,000 people arrested last year on marijuana charges find nothing funny about it, nor do the millions of Americans struggling in this sluggish economy. It would be an enormous economic stimulus if we stopped wasting so much money arresting and locking people up for nonviolent drug offenses and instead brought in new tax revenue from legal sales, just as we did when ended alcohol prohibition 75 years ago during the Great Depression."

"Other supporters include the current Judiciary panel head, Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vt., and the No. 2 Democrat in the Senate, Richard J. Durbin of Illinois," noted the Times-Dispatch.

"In Webb's home state, prison population has been growing steadily since 1995, when Virginia dumped parole for fixed sentences -- an initiative of the Republican former governor Webb narrowly defeated in 2006: George Allen."

"Webb has succeeded in pushing major legislation through Congress before, as his 21st Century GI Bill passed last year," noted The Atlantic's Marc Ambinder. "And it's hard for anyone to accuse the former Navy secretary of not being 'tough' enough."

Sen. Webb's office has published the legislation online.

With wire reports.

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