Sunday, March 29, 2009

Crime Proposal- no. 2

In defending his proposal for a commission to study the criminal justice system in the U.S.A., Senator Jim Webb (D.-Va.) on the Senate floor emphasized

We have 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. There are only 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.

Not quite. There may be "something dramatically wrong in terms of how we approach the issue of criminal justice." While Senator Webb is concerned about the lack of treatment of mentally ill inmates, the "sharp increase" of individuals incarcerated for drug offenses, and the preponderance of blacks in (federal) prison, many Americans believe judges hand out weak sentences, inmates are coddled, and the death penalty should be more widely applied.

But the rate of incarceration in the United States, which Webb notes is far greater than in the world as a whole, does not suggest that we may "have the most evil people on earth" nor does it alone prove that our approach is radically misguided. Nor does the fact that African-Americans, as the Senator points out, are only approximately 12% of our population but "end up being 37% of those arrested on drug charges, 59% of those convicted, and 74% of those sentenced to prison by the numbers that have been provided by us."

Without using the "r" word, Webb appears to assume that racial bigotry accounts for the disproportionate number of black Americans in penal institutions. This is disappointing- and rather curious- for a man whose Wikipedia entry indicates wrote an op-ed piece in The Wall Street Journal in 2006 which

addressed what Webb feels is a growing economic inequality in the United States, touching on what he feels are overly permissive immigration policies, extravagant executive compensation, the detrimental effects of free trade and globalization, iniquitous tax cuts, and speedily rising health care costs, and attacking the "elites" who he says perpetuate the aforementioned woes for their personal economic gain.

In the same article, the newly-elected senator wrote

The most important--and unfortunately the least debated--issue in politics today is our society's steady drift toward a class-based system, the likes of which we have not seen since the 19th century.... If it remains unchecked, this bifurcation of opportunities and advantages along class lines has the potential to bring a period of political unrest.

It's unfortunate that Webb's critical emphasis on the poverty endured by many white Americans has obscured the reality that black Americans more often are plagued with lower incomes, more substandard housing, inadequate education and health care, dysfunctional family structure, and thus, not surprisingly (though Webb claims otherwise in his Senate remarks), a higher rate of usage of hard drugs. And if the"growing income inequality in the United States might "bring a period of political unrest," it clearly is a factor in the incidence of crime. Were the Senator willing to press for a study of the bifurcation of American society rather than repeating the tired bromides about the faults of the justice system, he would be demonstrating the courage which otherwise have characterized his public career.

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