Now is the Time to Reform our Criminal Justice System

Now is the Time to Reform our Criminal Justice System


Now is the Time to Reform our Criminal Justice System


On 26 March 2009, I introduced in the U.S. Senate a piece of legislation designed to establish a National Criminal Justice Commission. The Presidential level blue-ribbon com- mission would be charged with con- ducting an 18-month, top-to-bottom review of our nation’s entire criminal justice system, ultimately providing the Congress and state governments with specific, concrete recommenda- tions for reform. The goal of this legislation is nothing less than a complete restructuring of the crim- inal justice system in the United States. Only an outside commission, properly structured and charged, can bring us complete findings necessary to do so.

Despite burgeoning prisoner populations, our communities and neighborhoods are not safer and we are still not bringing to justice the actual criminals who perpetrate vio- lence and criminality as a way of life. Fixing our system will require us to reexamine who goes to prison, for how long and how we address the

long-term consequences of their in- carceration.

Prior to joining the Senate, I spent time as a journalist. 25 years ago, I became the first American journalist to report from inside the Japanese prison system. It was when I was investigating the Japanese criminal justice system that I became aware of the systemic difficulties and challenges that we face here at home. In 1984, Japan had a population half the size of ours and was incarcerating 40,000 sentenced offenders, compared with 580,000 in the United States. As shocking as that disparity was, the difference between the countries now is even more astounding*and profoundly disturbing. Since then, Japan’s prison population has not quite doubled to 71,000, while ours has quadrupled to 2.3 million.

I strongly believe that there is a compelling national interest for us to examine this issue and reshape our criminal justice system at the federal, state, and local levels. Our failure to address these problems cuts against the notion that we are a society founded on fundamental fairness. I believe the high-level commission that I am advocating will provide us with that opportunity.

*Jim Webb, author of A Time to Fight: Reclaiming a Fair and Just America (2008), is Senior U.S. Senator for Virginia. Email:

Criminal Justice Ethics Vol. 28, No. 2, October 2009, 163�167

ISSN 0731-129X print/ISSN 1937-5948 online # 2009 Senator Jim Webb DOI: 10.1080/07311290903181184

To begin to understand the need and urgency of such a commission, let’s start with a premise that many Americans are not aware of. With 5% of the world’s population, our coun- try now houses 25% of the world’s reported prisoners. We have an in- carceration rate in the United States, the world’s greatest democracy, that is five times higher than the average incarceration rate of the rest of the world. With so many of our citizens in prison compared with the rest of the world, there are only two possi- bilities: Either we are home to the most evil people on earth or we are doing something vastly counterpro- ductive. Obviously, the answer is the latter.

Since 1980, incarceration rates in the United States have skyrocketed. Over the past two decades, we have been incarcerating more and more people for non-violent crimes and for acts that are driven by mental illness or drug dependence. We are warehousing the mentally ill in our prisons. With four times as many mentally ill people in our prisons as in mental health institutions, we need to understand that these people in prison are not receiving the kind of treatment they need in order to remedy the disabilities that led to their incarceration.

The ‘‘elephant in the bedroom’’ in many discussions about the criminal justice system is the sharp increase in drug-related incarceration over the past three decades. In 1980, we had 41,000 drug offenders in prison; today we have more than 500,000. This is an increase of 1,200% and a significant proportion of this population is incar- cerated for possession or non-violent offenses stemming from drug addic- tion and related behavioral issues.

Justice statistics also show that 47.5% of all the drug arrests in our country in 2007 were for marijuana offenses. Additionally, nearly 60% of the people in state prisons serving time for a drug offense had no history of violence or of any signifi- cant selling activity. Indeed, four out of five drug arrests were for posses- sion of illegal substances, while only one out of five was for sales. An estimated three-quarters of the drug offenders in our state prisons were there for non-violent or purely drug offenses. And although experts have found little statistical difference among racial groups regarding actual drug use, African-Americans*who make up about 12% of the total U.S. population*accounted for 37% of those arrested on drug charges, 59% of those convicted, and 74% of all drug offenders sentenced to prison.

At the same time, we’re putting too many of the wrong people in prison, while not solving the pro- blems to bring safety to our commu- nities. Approximately 1 million gang members live in our country today. This is an issue that affects every community in the United States. For example, the media have recently paid much attention to the Mexican drug cartels*and they are the most violent and visible gang networks today*but this is not a problem that exists only along the Mexican border. The Mexican cartels are oper- ating in 230 American cities across the United States. The incidents on the border should be understood to illuminate the largeness of the pro- blem and scope of the challenge.

An examination is also required as to what happens inside our prisons. When I was looking at the Japanese system many years ago, their system

Senator Jim Webb


of prison administration was basically designed on a traditional military model. You could not be a warden in a Japanese jail unless you started as a turnkey. Before becoming a turnkey, individual candidates had to take national examinations, and have a year of preparation and training in psychology and counseling techni- ques. Furthermore, the Japanese pro- motion systems were internal, as in the United States military. Corrections provided a quality career path, and the system created highly trained people from the very beginning. We don’t have that in America. Prisons vary warden to warden, and they vary locality to locality. We need to find a better way to manage correctional facilities in our country and to provide better support to our correctional officers in dealing with violent crim- inals under their supervision.

We also have a serious problem with prison violence and sexual vic- timization. It is imperative that we establish a safe environment for all inmates, and examine ways to better prepare them for their release back into civil society. In addition, we have many people in our prisons who are very ill, many suffering from hepatitis and HIV, and they are not getting the treatment they deserve. The de-humanizing envir- onment of jails and prisons com- pounds these challenges.

Over the course of last year, as we began talking about the idea of a National Criminal Justice Commis- sion, we started being contacted by people all across the country*people from every different part of the criminal justice system that comes into play when we talk about in- carceration. It is a very emotional issue. I heard from Supreme Court

Justice Kennedy, from prosecutors, judges, and defense lawyers, from police on the street, and from former offenders and people currently in prison. All of them believe that we have a mess here*a mess*and that we have to get a holistic view of it in order to understand how to solve it.

As to the design of this legislation, we are looking to shape a commis- sion with bipartisan balance. The President would nominate the com- mission’s leader. The Majority Leaders and Minority Leaders of both houses of Congress would appoint two members each, in consultation with their respective congressional judiciary committees. Finally, the Republican and Democratic Governors Association would each nominate one member.

It is also imperative to get a group of people in our country with cred- ibility and with wide expertise to examine specific findings and to come up with policy recommenda- tions in an 18-month time period. The purpose of this is not to have a group of people who are going to sit around and simply remonstrate about the problem.

The Commission shall review all areas of Federal and State criminal justice practices and make specific findings, to include an examination of:

. Reasons for increase in the U.S. incarceration rate compared to his- torical standards;

. Incarceration and other policies in similar democratic, western coun- tries;

. Prison administration policies, in- cluding the availability of pre- employment training programs and career progression for guards and prison administrators;

Now is the Time to Reform our Criminal Justice System


. Costs of current incarceration po- licies at the federal, state, and local level;

. The impact of gang activities, in- cluding foreign syndicates;

. Drug policy and its impact on incarceration, crime, and senten- cing;

. Policies as they relate to the men- tally ill;

. The historical role of the military in crime prevention and border security; and

. Any other area that the Commis- sion deems relevant.

We believe that these are the most pressing concerns, and that these issues need to be examined carefully and comprehensively.

The first step for the commission would be to give us factual findings, and from those findings the second step would be to give us recommen- dations for policy changes. The same issues addressed above in terms of the findings will apply in terms of the policy recommendations: how we can refocus our incarceration poli- cies; how we can work toward prop- erly reducing the incarceration rate in safe, fair, and cost-effective ways that still protect our communities; how we should address the issue of prison violence in all forms; how we can improve prison administration; how we can establish meaningful re-entry programs.

In terms of this last issue, with such a high volume of people coming out of prisons, we must, on a national level, assist local and state commu- nities to decrease recidivism. It is in the self-interest of every American that national leadership design pro- grams that provide former offenders

a true pathway toward a productive future.

The National Criminal Justice Commission Act has already gar- nered wide support from across the political and philosophical spectrum, including 29 sponsors in the Senate, among them many senior members of the Senate Judiciary Committee. My staff and I have engaged with more than 100 organizations and associations, representing the entire gamut of prosecutors, judges, de- fense lawyers, former offenders, ad- vocacy groups, think tanks, victims rights organizations, academics, pris- oners, and law enforcement on the street. This engagement is ongoing, and support continues to grow.

It is my hope that the Congress will pass this legislation this year. Although criminal justice reform is not a popular issue, the problems in our criminal justice system threaten every community in the United States and challenge our notion of fairness.

When we have 5% of the world’s population and 25% of the world’s prison population, there are better ways to keep our communities safe. When we still have public safety issues in every community because of gang violence, and particularly transnational gang violence at this moment, there are better ways to keep our communities safe. That is the purpose of having such a com- mission: to get the greatest minds in the country together with a specific timeline to bring specific findings and policy recommendations to Con- gress and the states. This commission of experts will wrestle with the entire gamut of criminal justice in this country. Not simply incarceration,

Senator Jim Webb


not simply gang violence, not simply re-entry, but all the pieces of our criminal justice system, so that we

can have a much needed and long overdue restructuring of how we address the crime in this country.


[Based on Senator Webb’s congressional floor speech to introduce ‘‘The National Criminal Justice Commission Act of 2009.’’]

Now is the Time to Reform our Criminal Justice System


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