Virginia Senator Pushes For Prison Reform Sen. Jim Webb introduced legislation last week establishing a blue-ribbon commission to retool the nation's prison system. The Virginia Democrat talks to host Jacki Lyden about the bill and why he feels the criminal justice system has to change.


Virginia Senator Pushes For Prison Reform

Virginia Senator Pushes For Prison Reform

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

Sen. Jim Webb introduced legislation last week establishing a blue-ribbon commission to retool the nation's prison system. The Virginia Democrat talks to host Jacki Lyden about the bill and why he feels the criminal justice system has to change.


From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Jacki Lyden.

The chief executive of General Motors is out. The White House has confirmed that President Obama asked Rick Wagoner to step down. We'll have more on the big news in the auto business later in the show.

First, to what Senator Jim Webb calls a national disgrace. It's the U.S. criminal justice system. Over seven million Americans are incarcerated, on probation, or on parole.

To start today's show, we'll take a look behind those numbers. Senator Webb has become an outspoken critic of the status quo. On Thursday, the Virginia Democrat introduced legislation to create a national criminal justice commission dedicated to retooling the prison system.

Webb argues that American justice is out of whack, with huge inequities that punish nonviolent offenses too harshly and lock up others for too long. It's something he's thought about for years.

Back when he was a military lawyer, he defended a young Marine wrongfully accused of murder, but the man took his own life before Webb could clear his name.

We caught up with the senator at his office.

Senator JIM WEBB (Democrat, Virginia): We now have 2.38 million people in prison, and we're not solving the true challenges that we have in terms of harmful crimes that threaten our communities.

We have five percent of the world's population. We have 25 percent of the world's known prison population. So, something is wrong.

LYDEN: It's certainly no secret that in the last 20, 25 years, longer incarceration rates and more prisons has been politically popular. In fact, no one could go wrong being tough on crime. What do you say to people who still feel strongly that that is the way to go?

Sen. WEBB: I think there is a genuine concern in the country about the implications of violent crime and organized criminal behavior, and I think that has fed the political process in terms of the tendency toward higher level of incarceration.

At the same time, they haven't really been addressing the problem, and we have to have the courage to step forward and say that. We have exponentially increased the number of people in prison since 1980, but a tremendous percentage of that increase has been for nonviolent crime, crimes related to drugs and, quite frankly, mental illness, and they are not getting treated for their problems.

So, we've seen this huge increase, a quadrupling, of the people in prison. At the same time, our communities really aren't any safer as a result of the increase in gang activity and transnational gang activity.

LYDEN: Let me talk about our own drug laws and the restructuring. You have a section in your bill that talks about restructuring the approach to the criminalization of illegal drugs. Could you tell me a few specifics?

Sen. WEBB: Well, first of all, I think mandatory sentences in terms of drug possession is absurd. The notion that nonviolent possession should have someone end up in prison is probably not a smart thing to do, and I would rather put this in front of a commission and see the alternatives that they would want to bring back.

There's a lot of different ways that we could be dealing with the drugs issue. And there are a lot of different kinds of drugs, as you know.

LYDEN: Historically, punishment and rehabilitation have kind of swung back and forth in this country. In the 1960s, some concentration on rehabilitation. By 1980, an idea that certain people were never going to be rehabilitated. Do you believe that?

Sen. WEBB: I remember when I was in law school, the big debates were do you punish a crime? Do you put people in jail to punish them? Do you put people in jail to deter activity? How does society fit into this?

And you can go back to when we were a colonial society. For a lot of things people go to jail for now, they'd put them in a stockades for a day, and the community would walk by and throw tomatoes at them. And you know, the idea was bringing some sort of accountability for your acts. That was supposed to be the major focus.

So, the real - to me, the issues that need to be examined are how do we deter crime? And I think you deter crime by people having a fairly good assurance they're going to get caught rather than the length of a sentence.

So, what deters a crime? How do you then say that you have paid your debt to society and move on? And this is where we really need - we've got a huge problem with 2.38 million people in prison at any time - a huge problem in terms of being fair to people who have paid their debt and allowing them the chance to re-enter meaningfully in society.

And there is always going to be a small group of people who choose the other way, who want a life of crime, who are going to be incorrigible, and those people need to be separated out. But I think we have leaned way, way toward a process that does not allow proper re-entry, and we can do better on that.

LYDEN: So, do you think there will be a fight over your bill? Do you expect a lot of opposition? And who will it be coming from?

Sen. WEBB: The first thing I would say about the bill is that I introduced it Thursday, and we have 16 co-sponsors the first day the bill was introduced. And I would imagine there might be a fight about the specific directions that would be given to the commission. But I sense that everyone wants to come together and do this, and then the question - the hard work will begin. But we just - we really need to do this as a matter of great national concern. We need to get going on this.

LYDEN: Senator Jim Webb, thank you very much.

Sen. WEBB: Thank you very much.

Copyright © 2009 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.