Right Thinking From The Left Coast
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The Prison Population Bomb

I have some issues with Jim Webb, but I have to tip my hat to him for bringing this issue up:

Sen. Jim Webb (D-VA) will launch an effort to reform the nation’s prison system today at noon, his staff says, introducing a bill--the National Criminal Justice Act of 2009--that would create a bipartisan commission on reform. The commission would undertake an 18-month review of the U.S. prison system, offering recommendations at the end.

Prison reform is a difficult thing to achieve, politically. Nearly every politician wants to be perceived as “tough on crime,” and suggesting that too many Americans are being incarcerated can seem to run against that. (Webb has, in fact, pointed out that the U.S. has attained the highest incarceration rate in the world.) Add tough discussions of prison conditions, inmate crime, and abuse, and it’s not an easy task for a politician to undertake.

Webb has succeeded in pushing major legislation through Congress before, as his 21st Century GI Bill passed last year. And it’s hard for anyone to accuse the former Navy secretary of not being “tough” enough. Reported support from Democratic leaders, President Obama, and interest from Judiciary Committee Ranking Member Arlen Specter could help him in this latest endeavor.

Webb this morning pointed out that, “We have five percent of the world’s population; we have 25 percent of the world’s known prison population.  There are two possibilities here: either we have the most evil people on earth living in the United States; or we are doing something dramatically wrong in terms of how we approach the issue of criminal justice.”

A few caveats apply.  America has very high rate of violent crime compared to most of our peer countries.  And, in contrast to countries with even higher rates of crime, we have a justice system that is very effective in catching, convicting and jailing criminals.  Our incarceration rate is partially a result of the intersection of these two trends.  And it’s not entirely a bad thing.  Freakonomics concluded, very persuasively, that the longer prison sentences doled out in the 90’s were the primary reason our crime rate dropped so sharply—and they aren’t alone in that conclusion.

Additionally, we are likely to see some effort directed toward the “root causes” of crime—i.e., even more money flushed down the toilet of social spending.  In particular, any commission is likely to recommend more spending to fight poverty and improve education.  I believe that poverty and education contribute to crime (although not as much as libs like to think).  But the liberal solutions to these problems have been tried for several decades and found seriously wanting.  I would even argue that some liberal ideas, like welfare, have made the crime problem worse.  The Left has been notoriously intransigent on these subjects.  They vehemently opposed a successful welfare reform bill.  And the only real solution to our education woes has run into the buzzsaw of liberal special interests.

But I do think, if we can keep this from degenerating into yet another orgy of social spending, there is progress to be made here. Drug legalization or decriminalization is the most prominent discussion point.  Drug treatment is not only more effective than incarceration but cheaper, too.  But alternatives for other non-violent offenders would also be good.  I’ve long said, first facetiously and now more seriously, that financial criminals should be punished by being forced to work minimum wage jobs for the rest of their lives.  Other crimes could be shifted to a non-prison track quite effectively.

Prison should be reserved for those who are violent—those whose continued presence in society poses a serious danger to the person and property of law-abiding citizens.  Even there, we need some reform.  Any system that provides flat panel TVs but refuses to prevent prison rape is seriously flawed.

Think about how much it would boost our economy if we just took a couple hundred thousand people out of prison and put them to work.  Think about if a few billion dollars went to more productive purposes than locking people up.

Webb deserves a lot of credit for this.  There is no constituency for prison reform, no special interest supporting it.  Prisoners don’t have lobbyists and drug addicts can barely afford their fix, least of all make campaign contributions.  This is just doing what’s right.

Posted by Hal_10000 on 03/31/09 at 08:33 AM in Politics • Permalink


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