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America's Shame: Can Jim Webb Fix the Prison Gulag?

An unlikely senator takes on the cause of reforming America's overloaded and barbaric jails.

Our criminal justice system is broken. The U.S. represents 5 percent of the world's population but accounts for nearly 25 percent of its prison population. We are incarcerating at a record rate with one in 100 American adults now locked up -- 2.3 million people overall. As a New York Times editorial stated simply, "This country puts too many people behind bars for too long."

But people who have been fighting for reform for decades are seeing new openings for change. The fiscal crisis has state governors and legislators looking for more efficient and effective alternatives to spending $50 billion a year on incarceration. At the federal level, there is reason to believe that the Obama administration and a reinvigorated Department of Justice will take a hard look at the inequities of the criminal justice system and work for a smarter and more effective approach to public safety. Finally, there are Congressional leaders -- none more prominent than Senator Jim Webb -- who understand that the system isn't functioning as it should and there is an urgent need for reform.

Indeed advocates for reform couldn't ask for a better standard-bearer than Senator Webb. As a decorated former Marine and Reagan Administration official no one is going to slap him with the politically-dreaded "soft on crime" label that has stymied so many Democrats who have taken on this issue in the past. There is a "Nixon goes to China" quality to Webb's call for change -- a law and order man who described his reform effort as "an act not of weakness but of strength."

As a journalist Webb wrote on the need for reform after visiting Japanese prisons and seeing a fundamental fairness and effectiveness that he recognized as lacking in the U.S. criminal justice system. As a Senator he's held hearings which have highlighted racial disparities in sentencing, the staggering costs of incarceration and effective and cost-efficient alternatives, and a futile and racially biased drug policy.

Now Senator Webb is poised to establish a commission with a broad mandate to examine issues like drug treatment, effective parole policy, racial injustice, education for inmates, reentry programs -- the myriad of issues intertwined in wasteful, ineffective criminal justice policies. Look for him to lay out that mandate with specificity in the coming weeks, and make an aggressive push to bring this issue to the forefront in both Congress and the media, much as he was able to do with the GI Bill.

Webb sent me an e-mail saying, "I feel very strongly about the need to put the right people behind bars. But we're locking up the wrong people too often all across our country. Mental illness isn't a crime. Addiction isn't a crime. We need to make sharp distinctions between violent offenders and people who are incarcerated for non-violent crimes, drug abuse and mental illness. We must raise public awareness about the need for criminal justice reform and find viable solutions. My staff and I are finalizing proposed legislation that could be introduced in the next two weeks to establish a national commission that will take a comprehensive look at where our criminal justice system is broken and how we can fix it."

While it's critical that Senator Webb is raising these issues at the national level where they have received so little attention, Marc Mauer, Executive Director of The Sentencing Project, points out that 90 percent of the U.S. prison population is incarcerated in state prisons and only 10 percent in federal prisons. Mauer said there is a growing awareness at the state level that our drug and sentencing policies have "gotten out of hand" and that the fiscal crisis presents an opportunity to do something about it.