Sunday, March 29, 2009

Crime Proposal- no. 1

Jim Webb has been a combat veteran of Vietnam, Marine Corps infantry officer, and Secretary of the Navy under President Ronald Reagan. Now a United States Senator from Virginia, Webb points out that he is not a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee. And it shows.

The Virginia Democrat has co-sponsored with Senator Arlen Specter (R.- Pa.) the National Criminal Justice Commission Act of 2009, which would create a commission which, according to Webb's website (redundant?) "an 18-month, top-to-bottom review of the nation's entire criminal justice system and offering concrete recommendations for reform. "

In his speech (pdf) on the Senate floor introducing the legislation, Webb clearly was exorcised because the United States is

5% of the world's population; we have 25% of the world's known prison population. We have an incarceration rate in the United States, the world's greatest democracy, that is five times as high as the average incarceration rate of the rest of the world....

The elephant in the bedroom in many discussions on the criminal justice system is the sharp increase in drug incarceration over the past three decades. In 1980, we had 41,000 drug offenders in prison; today we have more than 500,000, an increase of 1,200%.

There are two major problems with the proposal for a commission, aside from the impulse of Washington politicians to propose a commission, task force, or a committee at the cliched drop of a hat. Here is but one: Webb's speech is all about the United States as a nation, not as a collection of fifty states in a federal system. Statistics which can be directly compared are hard to come by; but in 2005, there were 1,189,900 men and women serving time in state prisons. As of the end of 2007- by which time even more individuals were in a facility after having been sentenced- there were 1,532,817 individuals in either a state or a federal prison.

Obviously, there are far more persons incarcerated in state facilities in the U.S.A. than in federal prisons. And the variation in state laws plays a role in differential rates of incarceration. For example, in 2005, Maine incarcerated 1867 people per 100,000 residents, while the corresponding number in Virginia (Mr. Webb's state) was 3214 individuals.

Admittedly, one of the factors spurring a high rate of imprisonment in the United States is the penalty for personal use of marijuana, which varies significantly between states. And if the thirst for liberalization of those laws on the federal level rested on the President most of the left supported, those hopes may now be considered dashed. Meanwhile, consideration for reform of the criminal justice system should be undertaken by those states, likely including Virginia, exhibiting the draconian laws and sentencing practices which appall Senators Webb and, presumably, Specter.

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