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U.S. Overflowing Prisons Spur Call for Reform Commission

"We are wasting billions of dollars and diminishing millions of lives. We need to fix the system."

NEW YORK - Despite the lackluster performance of so-called "blue ribbon commissions" in the United States over the years, sponsors of the latest proposal - the National Criminal Justice Commission - are optimistic that it will become a reality and that its recommendations will be taken seriously by the president, Congress and the U.S. public.

The reason, says its sponsor, Senator Jim Webb, a Democrat from Virginia, is that "America's criminal justice system has deteriorated to the point that it is a national disgrace".

He added, "We are wasting billions of dollars and diminishing millions of lives. We need to fix the system. Doing so will require a major nationwide recalculation of who goes to prison and for how long and of how we address the long-term consequences of incarceration."

Given the checkered history of blue ribbon commissions in the nation's capital, a spokesman for Sen. Webb told IPS that "with nearly 40 Democratic and Republican cosponsors, there is a strong likelihood of success".

In the past, Congressionally-appointed commissions are typically set up, staffed, complete their investigative and analytical work, make recommendations that are received by a senior official, a press release is issued, and then the commission's report is consigned to a shelf where it gathers dust.

Throughout U.S. history, there have been relatively few bodies that have gained the notoriety, media coverage, and attention from Congress and the president as the 9/11 Commission, established in the wake of the terrorist attacks if Sept. 11, 2001.

Over time, most of its recommendations were implemented. One reason was the severity of the issue - almost 3,000 deaths. Another was ongoing, well-organized, effective support from the families of the 9/11 victims.

A prison commission has none of those attributes - and prisoners can't vote. So the political incentive appears minimal.

But the issue is not. Statistics compiled by the Congressional Research Service begin to tell the story.

The United States has the highest incarceration rate on the planet - five times the world's average. A total of 2,380,000 people are now in prison. The U.S. has five percent of the world's population, but 25 percent of the world's prison population.

Minorities make up a disproportionately large share of inmates. Black males have a 32 percent chance of serving time in prison at some point in their lives; Hispanic males have a 17 percent chance; white males have a six percent chance.

African American men and boys are grossly over-represented at every stage of the judicial process. Although African Americans make up just over 12 percent of the national population, 42 percent of those currently on death row are African American.

African American women have the highest rate of incarceration among women in the U.S. - four times higher than that of white women.

Initial contacts with police officers are often driven by racial profiling and other racially tainted practices, and the disparities exist through the sentencing phase: African Americans routinely receive more jail time and harsher punishments.

Cocaine laws in particular disproportionately affect African Americans, who account for 25 percent of total crack cocaine users, yet who comprised 81 percent of those convicted of federal crack cocaine offenses in 2007.

Drug offenders in prisons and jails have increased 1200 percent since 1980. Nearly a half million persons are in federal or state prison or local jail for a drug offense, compared to an estimated 41,100 in 1980. A significant percentage of these offenders have no history of violence or high-level drug selling activity.

As a result, spending on corrections rose 127 percent at the state level while higher education expenditures rose just 21 percent.