Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Jim Webb and Prison Reform

I was set to comment on a short but thought-provoking piece that Bradford Plumer had written for The New Republic concerning Senator Jim Webb (D-VA) and his efforts to address the need for prison reform, a cause that remains quite unpopular among politicians. Then the magazine threw a curveball when they redesigned their site earlier this month, and I received the dreaded “Error 404” message when I re-checked the link. So to begin, here’s a key excerpt of what Plumer wrote, where he is covering a subcommittee meeting that Webb is co-hosting:

“Reentry programs [for prisoners] are one thing; talk of drastically reducing prison sentences, however, is still a radical notion for Congress…Webb, however, could be a convincing crusader here--after all, it's hard to accuse a man who once tried to bring a gun into the Senate of being a typical bleeding-heart liberal. Indeed, Webb emphasizes several times [during the meeting] that he's not soft on crime, and, as if to prove it, reiterates his desire to ‘break the backs of gangs’ and so forth. ‘But,’ he adds at the end, ‘I do hope my colleagues can better understand the impact of what we're doing here.’ ” By the time he says this, though, he's the only politician left in the room.”

There are two essays that I think help explicate this a bit. The first—Jeff Sharlet’s profile of Webb for Rolling Stone from June (full version here)—affirms why Plumer’s assessment of Webb as a potential “convincing crusader” for prison reform is likely accurate. Sharlet reminds us that Webb’s slim and unlikely victory in Virginia’s senatorial race last year was in large part due to his opponent George Allen’s gaffes, including the now-infamous “Macaca” comment. The “break the backs of gangs” comment is perhaps indicative of a self-consciousness regarding social issues and what will continue to help maintain his electoral support. Nevertheless, Webb is a hard-nosed “old school populist”—think William Jennings Bryan—who “loves war” and still carries many of the same political views as he did while Secretary of the Navy under Ronald Reagan. As a result, he has some freedom to pursue alternatives to incarceration while avoiding charges of being “soft” or too liberal—though that pursuit, as Plumer indicates in the above passage, will more than likely be a lonely one.

The other essay is Mark Mauer’s “The Hidden Problem of Time Served in Prison” for Social Research, which Plumer discussed this month on his blog. Of particular note is Mauer’s argument that the average length of prison sentences has markedly increased since 1990, which has primarily contributed to rises in both the prison population and system costs. Moreover, increasing sentence length does not act as a deterrent and has no bearing on recidivism rates. As Plumer notes:

“In theory, of course, you can lock up a prisoner for five or ten years, until he "ages out" of his prime crime-committing years, and that could reduce recidivism. But doing that for everyone would mean quadrupling our $60 billion-per-year prison system, and I trust no one needs to explain why that would be a horrible idea.”

Bearing this in mind as well as the fixture of tough-on-crime stances within politics, Webb faces an uphill battle with his reform efforts, but the fact that he is even concerned about the issue is rather noteworthy.

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