Thursday, March 26, 2009

America's disgraceful criminal justice system

"America's criminal justice system has deteriorated to the point that it is a national disgrace," said Senator Webb. "With five percent of the world's population, our country houses twenty-five percent of the world's prison population. Incarcerated drug offenders have soared 1200% since 1980. And four times as many mentally ill people are in prisons than in mental health hospitals. We should be devoting precious law enforcement capabilities toward making our communities safer. Our neighborhoods are at risk from gang violence, including transnational gang violence. There is great appreciation from most in this country that we are doing something drastically wrong. And, I am gratified that Senator Specter has joined me as the lead Republican cosponsor of this effort. We are committed to getting this legislation passed and enacted into law this year."

Those are Sen. Jim Webb's (D-VA) words on introducing the National Criminal Justice Commission Act of 2009.

WEBB, SPECTER INTRODUCE BILL TO OVERHAUL AMERICA'S CRIMINAL JUSTICE SYSTEM: Blue-Ribbon Commission to Offer Reforms on Incarceration Rates, Sentencing Policies, Gang Violence, Prison Administration & Reintegration of Offenders

Washington, DC--Senator Jim Webb (D-VA) today (March 26, 2009) introduced bipartisan legislation to create a blue-ribbon commission charged with conducting an 18-month, top-to-bottom review of the nation's entire criminal justice system and offering concrete recommendations for reform. Senator Arlen Specter (R-PA), Ranking Member on the Judiciary Committee, is the principal Republican cosponsor.

The National Criminal Justice Commission Act of 2009, S.714, is the result of decades of investigation and more than two years of intensive fact-finding in the U.S. Senate. In the 110th Congress, Webb chaired two hearings of the Joint Economic Committee that examined various aspects of the criminal justice system. In October of 2008, he conducted a symposium on drugs in America at George Mason University Law Center.

[For a copy of the legislation, visit:

"There have been many commissions in recent years, but the problems which we are now confronting warrant a fresh look," Senator Specter said. "This commission has the potential to really make some very significant advances in public security and protection from the violent criminals. I look forward to working with Senator Webb and my colleagues in the Senate on this important legislation."

The high-level commission created by the National Criminal Justice Commission Act of 2009 legislation will be comprised of experts in fields including criminal justice, law enforcement, public heath, national security, prison administration, social services, prisoner reentry, and victims' rights. It will be led by a chairperson to be appointed by the President. The Majority and Minority Leaders in the House and Senate, and the Democratic and Republican Governors Associations will appoint the remaining members of the commission.

Commissioners will be tasked with proposing tangible, wide-ranging reforms designed to responsibly reduce the overall incarceration rate; improve federal and local responses to international and domestic gang violence; restructure our approach to drug criminalization; improve the treatment of mental illness; improve prison administration; and establish a system for reintegrating ex-offenders.

In addition to Senators Webb and Specter, original cosponsors of the legislation include: Democratic Leader Harry Reid (D-NV), Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-VT), Crime and Drugs Subcommittee Chairman Richard Durbin (D-IL), Crime and Drugs Subcommittee Ranking Member Lindsay Graham (R-SC), and Senators Chuck Schumer (D-NY), Patty Murray (D-WA), Ted Kennedy (D-MA), Ron Wyden (D-OR), Sherrod Brown (D-OH), Ben Cardin (D-MD), Claire McCaskill (D-MO), Mark Warner (D-VA), Roland Burris (D-IL), and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY).

Webb said that he has also had encouraging discussions about the bill with officials from the White House and Department of Justice.

Senator Webb's interest in reforming the U.S. criminal justice system stems from his days as a Marine Corps officer, sitting on courts-martial, and "thinking about the interrelationship between discipline and fairness." Later, as an attorney, he spent six years in pro bono representation of a young African American Marine accused of war crimes in Vietnam, eventually clearing the man's name three years after he took his own life.

Twenty-five years ago, while working on special assignment for Parade Magazine, Webb was the first American journalist allowed inside the Japanese prison system, where he "became aware of the systemic dysfunctions of the U.S. system." Japan, with half of the United States' population at that time, had only 40,000 sentenced prisoners in jail compared to the U.S.'s 580,000; today, the U.S. has 2.38 million prisoners and another five million involved in the process, either due to probation or parole situations.

"We are not protecting our citizens from the increasing danger of criminals who perpetrate violence and intimidation as a way of life, and we are locking up too many people who do not belong in jail," concluded Webb. "I believe that American ingenuity can discover better ways to deal with the problems of drugs and nonviolent criminal behavior while still minimizing violent crime and large-scale gang activity.

"We all deserve to live in a country made better by such changes," said Webb.

This statement was provided by the office of Senator Jim Webb.


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