Without prison reform the very fabric of our nation is at risk

By Sen. Jim Webb

The Free Lance-Star

Published: Friday, April 20 2012 12:00 a.m. MDT

In this photo taken Feb. 24, 2004, a cell house at Thomson Correctional Center is seen from one of the guard towers at the facility north of Thomson.

Dan Videtich, Associated Press

Enlarge photo»

WASHINGTON — We find ourselves as a nation in the midst of a profound, deeply corrosive crisis that we have largely been ignoring at our peril. The scope of the problem is vast: We have 5 percent of the world's population but 25 percent of the world's known prison population. More than 7 million Americans are incarcerated, on probation, or on parole; 2.27 million Americans are in prison — five times the world's average incarceration rate. At the same time, two-thirds of Americans say there is more crime today than a year ago.

The disintegration of our criminal justice system, day by day and year by year, and the movement toward mass incarceration — with very little attention being paid to clear standards of prison administration or meaningful avenues of re-entry for those who have served their time — are dramatically affecting millions of lives. They are draining billions of dollars from our economy, destroying notions of neighborhood and family in hundreds of communities across the country, and — most importantly — not making our country a safer or a fairer place.

It is in the interest of every American, in every community across this land, that we thoroughly re-examine our entire criminal justice system in a way that allows us to interconnect all of its different aspects when it comes to finding proper approaches and solutions to each component part. I am convinced that the most appropriate way to conduct this examination is through a presidential-level commission, tasked to bring forth specific findings and recommendations for the Congress to consider and, where appropriate, enact.

Since first introducing the National Criminal Justice Commission Act in 2009, my office has worked tirelessly to build the case for reform with groups from across the philosophical and political spectrum. Through these efforts, we have won the support of more than 100 organizations, including the National Association of Evangelicals, Prison Fellowship, the National Sheriffs' Association, the Fraternal Order of Police, the International Association of Chiefs of Police, the Sentencing Project, and the NAACP.

Many of these organizations, including a recent delegation of faith leaders and law enforcement representatives, have met with their elected representatives to voice support for the bill. We need to take a comprehensive look at our criminal justice system.

As a nation, we can spend our money more effectively, make our communities safer, reduce the prison population, and create a fairer system.

It is time to take stock of what is broken and what works, and modify our criminal justice policies accordingly.

Sen. Jim Webb is the senior senator from Virginia. He wrote this for The Free Lance-Star in Fredericksburg, Va.

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