This spring, Webb (D-Va.) plans to introduce legislation on a long-standing passion of his: reforming the U.S. prison system. Jails teem with young black men who later struggle to rejoin society, he says. Drug addicts and the mentally ill take up cells that would be better used for violent criminals. And politicians have failed to address this costly problem for fear of being labeled "soft on crime."
It is a gamble for Webb, a fiery and cerebral Democrat from a staunchly law-and-order state. Virginia abolished parole in 1995, and it trails only Texas in the number of people it has executed. Moreover, as the country struggles with two wars overseas and an ailing economy, overflowing prisons are the last thing on many lawmakers' minds.
But Webb has never been one to rely on polls or political indicators to guide his way. He seems instead to charge ahead on projects that he has decided are worthy of his time, regardless of how they play -- or even whether they represent the priorities of the state he represents.
As I wrote earlier, this troubling New York Times article describes how:
- The U.S. "has 751 people in prison or jail for every 100,000 in population.
- Russia is second with 627 prisoners for every 100,000 people.
- England’s rate is 151; Germany’s is 88; and Japan’s is 63.
No wonder Webb thinks Japan's prison system could become a model for ours:
Still, Webb said, the United States could learn from the Japanese system. In his book, "A Time to Fight," he wrote that the Japanese focused less on retribution. Sentences were short, and inmates often left prison with marketable job skills. Ironically, he said, the system was modeled on philosophies pioneered by Americans, who he says have since lost their way on the matter.
Webb believes he can guide the nation back. "Contrary to so much of today's political rhetoric," he wrote, "to do so would be an act not of weakness but of strength."