Dispatches from the Creation Wars

Cheering James Webb

Sen. James Webb of Virginia plans to do something that few politicians have had the courage to do: introduce legislation to reform the prison system and put the focus on rehabilitation of non-violent offenders and incarceration of violent offenders.

This spring, Webb (D-Va.) plans to introduce legislation on a long-standing passion of his: reforming the U.S. prison system. Jails teem with young black men who later struggle to rejoin society, he says. Drug addicts and the mentally ill take up cells that would be better used for violent criminals. And politicians have failed to address this costly problem for fear of being labeled “soft on crime.”

It is a gamble for Webb, a fiery and cerebral Democrat from a staunchly law-and-order state. Virginia abolished parole in 1995, and it trails only Texas in the number of people it has executed. Moreover, as the country struggles with two wars overseas and an ailing economy, overflowing prisons are the last thing on many lawmakers’ minds.

This is politically dangerous, of course. Anyone daring to suggest that we should do anything but lock em up and throw away the key is accused by demagogues and opportunists on the right of being soft on crime. Like this guy:

State Sen. Ken Cuccinelli II (R-Fairfax), who is running for attorney general, said the initiative sounds “out of line” with the desires of people in Virginia but not necessarily surprising for Webb. The senator, he said, “is more emotion than brain in terms of what leads his agenda.”

Says the guy who is transparently couching his opposition in strictly emotional terms. Let’s look at the facts: we imprison a higher percentage of our population than any other Western nation by a huge margin. A huge percentage of those prisoners are non-violent, at least when they go into prison. By the time they come out, of course, they may well be conditioned to be violent because that’s the only way they could survive.

A huge portion of those in prison are there solely on drug charges, either possession or distribution, with no violence associated with their actions. And due to the zeal of the lock-em-up forever crowd, they are imprisoned for longer and longer periods of time due to mandatory minimum and “three strikes” laws. Families are destroyed by having fathers removed for long periods of time. Lives are destroyed as they come out of prison virtually unemployable because of their criminal record.

The financial cost is as high as the human cost. Each inmate costs taxpayers $30,000 or more per year to incarcerate. This is a huge portion of the budgets at a time when states are struggling with budget shortfalls due to decreased revenues. Finding alternative ways of handling non-violent offenders makes sense from every imaginable angle.

Unfortunately, this legislation will have very little chance of passing, precisely because shallow emotional appeals about the dangers of drugs and crime work powerfully on an uninformed and irrational electorate.