Our Time for Prison Reform is Now



(Image: Darrin Klimek from Getty)

Virginia Senator Jim Webb (D-VA) put his political career on the line by simply saying that we need to look into prison reform.  He never said that we shouldn’t punish people for crimes that they commit.  He also never said that we should just release people from prison regardless of their sentences.  Here’s an excerpt of what he said:

Let’s start with a premise that I don’t think a lot of Americans are aware of. 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. . . .
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%. The blue disks represent the numbers in 1980; the red disks represent the numbers in 2007 and a significant percentage of those incarcerated are for possession or nonviolent offenses stemming from drug addiction and those sorts of related behavioral issues. . . .

In many cases these issues involve people’s ability to have proper counsel and other issues, but there are stunning statistics with respect to drugs that we all must come to terms with. African-Americans are about 12% of our population; contrary to a lot of thought and rhetoric, their drug use rate in terms of frequent drug use rate is about the same as all other elements of our society, about 14%. But they 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.

Yet it’s considered a huge risk for his career to make such statements.  He risks coming across “soft on crime.”  It’s like saying that you don’t believe in God.  Kudos to Webb for his courage.

These facts and figures need to be out in the open.  We must be having this conversation.  The one thing about numbers is that they don’t lie.  The fact that we have 25% of the world’s known prison population is staggeringly absurd.  Like Webb says, either we have way more evil people in our country or the justice system is broken.  I just don’t understand why it’s so blasphemous to say that maybe we’re throwing too many people – and too many of the wrong people – into prison.

There are gray areas.  You can be tough on crime yet also fair and reasoned.  Throwing more and more people into prison for longer and longer times does not automatically equate to being tough on crime.  I also fail to see how any elected officials would want to be truly soft on crime, as people say.  It’s just another scare tactic used to polarize people instead of actually listening to the arguments and getting away from partisan semantics.

I’m so sick and tired of how every issue has to pit both Democrats and Republicans impossibly against each other.  I understand that there will be differences in ideology and that’s fine for healthy discussion.  But at the end of the day, facts are facts, and reality is reality.  Do we need to constantly throw ideals into the mix when that just isn’t part of the equation?

I’ve already begun to discuss how I would start changing the justice system back in a previous post.  Reducing the lifelong penalties that people endure from having been convicted of nonviolent felonies would be an exceptional start.  It won’t be easy; the mentality in America is that you’re a convicted felon, you are a useless burden on society that doesn’t deserve our respect or decency let alone a well-paying job.  If we can at least change the laws, hopefully our cultural mindset will shift along with it.


  1. I’m right there with you on it! The politics of it, with the “two party system” are what’s killing us right now. We could very easily come to realistic agreements on many things, prison reform one of them, if we, as AMERICANS stop listening to the polarization of parties, and start THINKING for ourselves! Many of the younger (16-29) people hearing these things are starting to understand that. I pray it works out soon, because it’s getting really annoying hearing “It’s the (pick your side/party/person)’s fault because they don’t think like we do!”

  2. There’s no arguing the fact that our justice system is twisted. Its just FACT. Our judicial priorities are out of wack and finance plays far to much of a role in how sentences are handed out.

    I wonder, and have no way of knowing, if the rehabilitation or punishment results of a 1 years sentence differ that greatly from a 3 year sentence (adjust those numbers to anything over a few months). How long does it take to change or alternatively, remove a prisoner from the memories of his/her actions? Does it matter? Does it make a difference?

  3. Having been a prisoner of Minnesota prisons, and after much struggle and strain, turned my life around; I can tell you, with authority, my redemption was not because of prison but in spite of it. Going to prison is a handicap of enormous proportions and many, many people are condemned to offend repeatedly until they finally strike out. So sad, and so unnecesary. Hooray to Senator Jim Webb for speaking out.

    • I’m happy to hear that you have been able to break out of the chains – both physical and social – that shackled you during and after your time in prison. Going to prison definitely will always be a handicap to people, and as punishment, it should. But it shouldn’t keep people down for the rest of their free lives once they’ve served their time. And it shouldn’t cause them to fall back to crime because of social restrictions. I hope the rest of government takes notice of Senator Webb and reform can finally happen.

  4. It’s amazing that there’s only one man that stands out among hundreds of Rep’s and Senators right? Is he the only man with balls enough to speak-out? This fact alone should tell us all something: Either the system is really corrupt or the system is really corrupt. OOPS, did I say that out loud?

    • This economic crisis has definitely proven to have an effect on the prison situation: here in Calfornia, they’re releasing thousands of prisoners early — they have nonviolent offenses, I believe — because they can’t afford to house them in the overcrowded facilities.

      And then there’s the marijuana legalization law that’s coming up to vote soon. Interesting way to change things – instead of recalibrating the sentencing system, simply make more things legal.

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