Sen. Jim Webb Tackles Incarceration in America

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United States Sen. Jim Webb of Virginia is perhaps best-known for his vocal opposition to the Bush administration's Iraq War policy. But he's also passionate about the impact of high incarceration rates on American communities. Webb talks about the financial and social costs to keeping millions of people incarcerated in federal, state or local facilities.

MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Today, we're looking at America's prison system inside and out. A story that started out as a tale of racial injustice turns out to be so much more, and making art behind prison walls. Also later, Chaka Khan. She'll tell you, you only need to say it once.

Bur first, most people know the U.S. as a world leader in making movies and cars, but the U.S. has also become a world leader in incarceration, with the highest incarceration rate in the world. More than 2.2 million Americans are now in federal, state or local prisons, and that number is heavily skewed by race, with blacks and Latinos far more likely to be incarcerated than whites.

Lawmakers on Capitol Hill a while back hosted a conversation about whether policies designed to keep America safe are actually costing America in other ways. Leading the proceedings, Senator Jim Webb, a Democrat and a junior senator from Virginia. He joins us now from his office on the Hill.

Senator, welcome. Thanks for speaking with us.

Senator JIM WEBB (Democrat, Virginia): Thank you.

MARTIN: What prompted you to take up this issue? I think that, you know, owing to your service as a military man, a former secretary of the Navy, I think most people think of you as an expert in national security. So what drew you to this issue?

Sen. WEBB: Well, I have a long career as a writer and a journalist. And back in the 1980's, before I went into the Pentagon, I was the first American journalist to get inside the Japanese prison system, and I spent a month at the Ministry of Justice and in the different prisons inside Japan that had American inmates. And I came away from that experience with a concern about the American prison system even then. At that point Japan, which had half of our population, had only 40,000 people in prison, and we had almost 800,000.

Today, we have almost triple that number, we have 2.1, 2.2 million people involved in federal, state or local prisons and jails. And having watched this over the years and having watched the system skew more and more toward, basically, victimless crimes that people are being incarcerated for. I started talking about it during my campaign last year, and I made a commitment that I was going to try to do something about it, and this is the beginning of that.

MARTIN: Part of the case you make for reexamining incarceration rates is that the long-term trends show crime falling, even as the incarceration rates were rising. But couldn't people argue that that's why crime is falling, because more people are locked up?

Sen. WEBB: What has happened over the past 10 to 15 years is that more and more people are being sent to prison for drug offenses and for, as I say, basically, victimless crimes. And it's extremely costly. It has an impact on families, and it's not solving societies problems, and it's distracting us from situations such as gang violence. So I don't think it's particularly healthy.

MARTIN: But what data do you look at, or what is it that you look at to say that it's not particularly healthy? What is it that you're responding to when you say that perhaps the cost of this is greater than the reward that we're getting from it - from this policy?

Sen. WEBB: Well, we're spending something like $200 billion a year incarcerating people. We're spending huge amounts of money building prisons that could be better used back in these neighborhoods in drug education and other ways of dealing with drug use. I mean, we have, basically, a nation that has a very wide pattern of drug use. But in terms of locking people up for drug use, it goes pretty much down into the minority communities. So this whole idea of having America divided along class lines where the people at the bottom now in terms of employment and other areas - now also incarceration - pulling us further and further apart. The data's clear.

MARTIN: You've raised the issue of the racial disparity in incarceration rates. And you, you know, you point out in your report African-Americans are something like five times more likely to be incarcerated than whites and Latinos, or something like twice as likely to be incarcerated as whites. I want to know why do you think that that's important? Some might argue if these are the people committing the crimes, then those are the people who need to be locked up. Why do you feel it's something that needs to be looked at?

Sen. WEBB: Well, we had some really powerful testimony from people who've worked in this area. And one of the startling facts that came out of it was that, for instance, on something like drug use. It's not simply the people who use drugs that are getting arrested. Drug use among all elements of our society is pretty consistent. But the people being arrested are very heavily among the - particularly the black community, because law enforcement goes to the point where the drugs are generally sold.

And so you have, say, somebody coming in from the suburbs to buy drugs. They all go to one spot, and so the enforcement people go to one spot. And the people who are generally get arrested are the minority people who were there, and it's skewed the policy. And the impact of that is devastating in these communities. And we got to figure out just a different way to address that particular element of criminal activity.

MARTIN: Well, a lot of the discretion around who gets arrested, how people are prosecuted - all of those things are state level decisions. How much influence do you think you really have at the federal level?

Sen. WEBB: Well, the first thing we're trying to do is just elevate people's understanding of the complexities of this issue. And the second thing we're trying to, which can be addressed at the federal level, is, for instance, in legislation like the Second Chances Act, which I'm co-sponsoring. And that basically says for any crime, you know, and once you've paid the price, then you should have your citizenship restored - other than the extremely violent crimes and all sort of things.

But the whole idea being, we need to focus on re-entry from the criminal justice system. We need to focus on getting people into professional environments that will help them have productive lives rather than - the system now, which basically encourages people to go back into criminal activity.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, we're speaking with Senator Jim Webb about this country's incarceration policies.

Senator, we've talked recently with another political leader who has also raised concerns about this issue, and that is a Democratic presidential candidate Mike Gravel, who believes that, you know, part of the answer to the country's high incarceration rate is to treat drug abuse like a public health problem. What do you think of that approach?

Sen. WEBB: I think that should be a piece of this. Absolutely, it should be a piece of it.

MARTIN: But why is it that somebody like Mike Gravel, who is generally - I mean, I don't mean to offend him, but he's clearly not considered a mainstream candidate - is the only person who we should be talking about things like that?

Sen. WEBB: Well, that's a totally different question. And while I was talking about this on the campaign trail last year, and there are a lot of people coming to me and saying, you know, this isn't a good issue for you to talk about because number one, it doesn't get you any campaign donations. And number two, people are going to say you're soft on crime. And maybe it's because of my military background that I can understand the importance of discipline in our society, but at the same time, I can understand and appreciate that it should be fairly administered.

And so that's really what I'm trying to get out here, is, on the one hand, we have serious problems with - particularly with the gangs in this country. And there are growing problems. And yet, on the other, we get people who are fairly randomly picked up on the back end of this and end up inside the criminal justice system. And once you're incarcerated - say, you're 18 years old and you're incarcerated for drug possession or maybe you're going to sell a joint to somebody on the street and you get involved in the system, and it's very difficult for the rest of your life to get out of it and to get all of your citizenship rights back.

So we need to figure out a way to fairly address these issues to, you know, to put people in jail who truly deserve to be there, and to try to find others ways to address situations such as drug abuse, which quite often takes over somebody and isn't necessarily criminal in terms of intent or impact on other people.

MARTIN: But what about what was said to you during the campaign, that this is a loser? You know, this is not something that people want to talk about. How do you change the conversation around these issues without being viewed as a fringe candidate? I mean, I think, you know, you would agree that most political leaders don't care a lot of - well, how can I put this - that politicians generally get rewarded for being seen as tough on crime. And when you start talking about, you know, alternative sentencing and things like that - do you understand what I'm saying? How do you change the conversation?

Sen. WEBB: Yeah, I do. But here, my principal occupation in my whole adult life has been as a writer. And I understand and I accept that there are a lot of issues that can't be resolved in one year. But if you get the issues out there in a way that people begin to understand them, then you can start changing the dialogue and then - and have a different set of results at the end.

And the other thing is the emotional arguments and it is an emotional argument. People are afraid of crime - justifiably so. So they want to lock bad people up. But emotional arguments are best made with facts. And so it's important to get the facts out there so that people can look at them. I don't think it's healthy when we have 5 percent of the world's population and 25 percent of the world's prison population. There are better ways to deal with a lot of problems in our society than to have that level of incarceration.

MARTIN: Do you see any sign that the way we talk about these issues is changing?

Sen. WEBB: I think the pendulum swings. And there was a period when the crime rates were higher, where people generally thought that more prisons was the answer. And quite frankly, there are neighborhoods in this country that benefit financially from building prisons and seeing them administered. But then you reach a point where you stop and you say, wait a minute, is this healthy?

So the pendulum swings. People start realizing, well, maybe we've overcompensated and there are better ways to deal with society's problems and still be able to go after the truly bad folk that need to be locked up.

MARTIN: Finally, sir, despite the fact that crime rates have been dropping over the last - the decade in this country, recent data shows that crime has now in the increase in many American cities, that they are some just, you know, truly alarming things that have happened in the cities around the country. I'm sure you're, you know, aware of some of them.

Given that, is this effort to change the conversation around incarceration perhaps ill timed?

Sen. WEBB: The growth in incarceration hasn't been in violent a crime. It's been an area such as drugs. You know, we want violent criminals to be locked up. We want the gang situation to be aggressively addressed. But does it really benefit us when we're locking people up because they have mental problems or because they're drug users? There's just better ways for us as a society to, you know, to separate these problems out and fix them.

MARTIN: Senator Jim Webb is a Democrat. He represents the State of Virginia in the United States Senate. He joined us from his office here in Washington.

Senator, thanks so much for speaking with us.

Sen. WEBB: Thank you.

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