Jim Webb's courage v. the "pragmatism" excuse for politiciansThere are few things rarer than a major politician doing something that is genuinely courageous and principled, but Jim Webb's impassioned commitment to fundamental prison reform is exactly that.
Webb's interest in the issue was prompted by
his work as a journalist in 1984, when he wrote about an American citizen who was locked away in a Japanese prison for two years under extremely harsh conditions for nothing more than marijuana possession. After decades of mindless "tough-on-crime" hysteria, an increasingly irrational "drug war," and a sprawling, privatized prison state as brutal
as it is counter-productive, America has easily surpassed Japan -- and virtually every other country in the world -- to become what Brown University Professor Glenn Loury recently described
as a "a nation of jailers" whose "prison system has grown into a leviathan unmatched in human history."
What's most notable about Webb's decision to champion this cause is how honest his advocacy is. He isn't just attempting to chip away at the safe edges of America's oppressive prison state. His critique of what we're doing is fundamental, not incremental.
And, most important of all, Webb is addressing head-on one of the principal causes of our insane imprisonment fixation: our aberrational insistence
on criminalizing and imprisoning non-violent drug offenders (when we're not doing worse to them
). That is an issue most politicians are petrified to get anywhere near, as evidenced just this week by Barack Obama's adolescent, condescending snickering
when asked about marijuana legalization, in response to which Obama gave a dismissive answer that Andrew Sullivan accurately deemed
"pathetic." Here are just a few excerpts from Webb's Senate floor speech this week
(.pdf) on his new bill to create a Commission to study all aspects of prison reform:
( Collapse )Webb added
that "America's criminal justice system has deteriorated to the point that it is a national disgrace" and "we are locking up too many people who do not belong in jail."It's hard to overstate how politically thankless, and risky, is Webb's pursuit of this issue -- both in general and particularly for Webb.
Though there has been some evolution of public opinion
on some drug policy issues, there is virtually no meaningful organized constituency for prison reform. To the contrary, leaving oneself vulnerable to accusations of being "soft on crime" has, for decades, been one of the most toxic vulnerabilities a politician can suffer (ask Michael Dukakis). Moreover, the privatized Prison State is a booming
and highly profitable
industry, with an army of lobbyists, donations
, and other well-funded weapons for targeting
candidates who threaten its interests.
Most notably, Webb is in the Senate not as an invulnerable, multi-term political institution from a safely blue state (he's not Ted Kennedy), but is the opposite: he's a first-term Senator from Virginia, one of the "toughest" "anti-crime" states in the country
(it abolished parole in 1995 and is second only to Texas in the number of prisoners it executes), and Webb won election to the Senate by the narrowest of margins, thanks largely to George Allen's macaca-driven implosion
. As Ezra Klein wrote
, with understatement: "Lots of politicians make their name being anti-crime, which has come to mean pro-punishment. Few make their name being pro-prison reform." ( Collapse )I was gonna include this article as well but it seemed a little long.
Anyway, even if you for some reason don't care about criminal justice reform, this article is a very keen explanation of WHY our Democratic political leaders are often such timid little milquetoasts.