Why We Must Fix Our Prisons

Why We Must Fix Our Prisons
Posted by CN Staff on March 29, 2009 at 14:54:21 PT
By Senator Jim Webb
Source: Parade
Washington, D.C. -- America's criminal justice system has deteriorated to the point that it is a national disgrace. Its irregularities and inequities cut against the notion that we are a society founded on fundamental fairness. Our failure to address this problem has caused the nation's prisons to burst their seams with massive overcrowding, even as our neighborhoods have become more dangerous. We are wasting billions of dollars and diminishing millions of lives.
We need to fix the system. Doing so will require a major nationwide recalculation of who goes to prison and for how long and of how we address the long-term consequences of incarceration. Twenty-five years ago, I went to Japan on assignment for PARADE to write a story on that country's prison system. In 1984, Japan had a population half the size of ours and was incarcerating 40,000 sentenced offenders, compared with 580,000 in the United States. As shocking as that disparity was, the difference between the countries now is even more astounding--and profoundly disturbing. Since then, Japan's prison population has not quite doubled to 71,000, while ours has quadrupled to 2.3 million.The United States has by far the world's highest incarceration rate. With 5% of the world's population, our country now houses nearly 25% of the world's reported prisoners. We currently incarcerate 756 inmates per 100,000 residents, a rate nearly five times the average worldwide of 158 for every 100,000. In addition, more than 5 million people who recently left jail remain under "correctional supervision," which includes parole, probation, and other community sanctions. All told, about one in every 31 adults in the United States is in prison, in jail, or on supervised release. This all comes at a very high price to taxpayers: Local, state, and federal spending on corrections adds up to about $68 billion a year.Our overcrowded, ill-managed prison systems are places of violence, physical abuse, and hate, making them breeding grounds that perpetuate and magnify the same types of behavior we purport to fear. Post-incarceration re-entry programs are haphazard or, in some places, nonexistent, making it more difficult for former offenders who wish to overcome the stigma of having done prison time and become full, contributing members of society. And, in the face of the movement toward mass incarceration, law-enforcement officials in many parts of the U.S. have been overwhelmed and unable to address a dangerous wave of organized, frequently violent gang activity, much of it run by leaders who are based in other countries.With so many of our citizens in prison compared with the rest of the world, there are only two possibilities: Either we are home to the most evil people on earth or we are doing something different--and vastly counterproductive. Obviously, the answer is the latter.Over the past two decades, we have been incarcerating more and more people for nonviolent crimes and for acts that are driven by mental illness or drug dependence. The U.S. Department of Justice estimates that 16% of the adult inmates in American prisons and jails--which means more than 350,000 of those locked up--suffer from mental illness, and the percentage in juvenile custody is even higher. Our correctional institutions are also heavily populated by the "criminally ill," including inmates who suffer from HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, and hepatitis.Drug offenders, most of them passive users or minor dealers, are swamping our prisons. According to data supplied to Congress' Joint Economic Committee, those imprisoned for drug offenses rose from 10% of the inmate population to approximately 33% between 1984 and 2002. Experts estimate that this increase accounts for about half of the dramatic escalation in the total number imprisoned over that period. Yet locking up more of these offenders has done nothing to break up the power of the multibillion-dollar illegal drug trade. Nor has it brought about a reduction in the amounts of the more dangerous drugs--such as cocaine, heroin, and methamphetamines--that are reaching our citizens.Justice statistics also show that 47.5% of all the drug arrests in our country in 2007 were for marijuana offenses. Additionally, nearly 60% of the people in state prisons serving time for a drug offense had no history of violence or of any significant selling activity. Indeed, four out of five drug arrests were for possession of illegal substances, while only one out of five was for sales. Three-quarters of the drug offenders in our state prisons were there for nonviolent or purely drug offenses. And although experts have found little statistical difference among racial groups regarding actual drug use, African-Americans--who make up about 12% of the total U.S. population--accounted for 37% of those arrested on drug charges, 59% of those convicted, and 74% of all drug offenders sentenced to prison.Against this backdrop of chaos and mismanagement, a dangerous form of organized and sometimes deadly gang activity has infiltrated America's towns and cities. It comes largely from our country's southern border, and much of the criminal activity centers around the movement of illegal drugs. The weapons and tactics involved are of the highest order.The Mexican drug cartels, whose combined profits are estimated at $25 billion a year, are known to employ many elite former soldiers who were trained in some of America's most sophisticated military programs. Their brutal tactics took the lives of more than 6000 Mexicans last year alone, and the bloodshed has been spilling over the border into our own neighborhoods at a rapid pace. One terrible result is that Phoenix, Ariz., has become the kidnapping capital of the United States, with more than 370 cases in 2008. That is more incidents than in any other city in the world outside of Mexico City.The challenge to our communities is not limited to the states that border Mexico. Mexican cartels are now reported to be running operations in some 230 American cities. Other gang activity--much of it directed from Latin America, Asia, and Europe--has permeated our country to the point that no area is immune. As one example, several thousand members of the Central American gang MS-13 now operate in northern Virginia, only a stone's throw from our nation's capital.In short, we are not protecting our citizens from the increasing danger of criminals who perpetrate violence and intimidation as a way of life, and we are locking up too many people who do not belong in jail. It is incumbent on our national leadership to find a way to fix our prison system. I believe that American ingenuity can discover better ways to deal with the problems of drugs and nonviolent criminal behavior while still minimizing violent crime and large-scale gang activity. And we all deserve to live in a country made better by such changes.Senator Jim Webb (D. Va.) is a PARADE Contributing Editor and the author of nine books, including "A Time to Fight."Source: Parade (US)Author: Senator Jim WebbPublished: March 29, 2009Copyright: 2009 Parade PublicationsWebsite: Articles:Pot Legalization Could Be Part Of Overhaul Webb's Courage
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Comment #17 posted by ekim on March 30, 2009 at 18:27:10 PT
listen if you can Security Secretary Janet Napolitano/Senator Jim Webb 
Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano on the administration's plan to fight violent Mexican drug cartels ... and Senator Jim Webb discusses U.S. drug policies and proposed changes to the criminal justice system.
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Comment #16 posted by FoM on March 30, 2009 at 07:31:07 PT
Thank you. 
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Comment #15 posted by ekim on March 30, 2009 at 07:20:23 PT
Sen Jim Webb
on NPR National Public Radio on the Diane Rehm show will be talking about our prison system and drug offenders
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Comment #14 posted by George Servantes on March 30, 2009 at 07:15:52 PT
Nonviolent offenders do not belong in jail
Ashley Biden do not belong in jail, neither other ordinary people. I hope her father is good enough to take a lesson, Obama didn't care about his half brother marijuana arrest.
I hope, I hope they will take their lesson. I hope they didn't fully sell their soul to corporation money .
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Comment #13 posted by George Servantes on March 30, 2009 at 07:12:16 PT
I still hope and support this reform
Small grow and small possession should be decriminalized.At least, nonviolent offenders should not be in same jail with violent offenders. It's against common sense to put nonviolent offender together with violent and expose them to violent offenders which can do them harm in prison.I wish there is more people like Senator Jim Webb that really want to do good to his country and citizens. i am sick of politicians who only work for and care about multi-rich corporations and money.
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Comment #12 posted by FoM on March 30, 2009 at 05:13:32 PT
John Tyler
I saw a couple pictures of her. She is a very pretty young woman. I like the fact she is a Social Worker too.
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Comment #11 posted by The GCW on March 29, 2009 at 21:47:35 PT
NORML ( The National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws ) typically gets about $900 a day in online donations. Thursday and Friday, they got $3,500 each day. By every possible metric I can employ," said NORML's executive director, Allen St. Pierre, "these last 24 hours have been the busiest I've seen." US MA: Column: Joint Resolution: Taxing Pot Just Makes Cents
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Comment #10 posted by John Tyler on March 29, 2009 at 20:30:51 PT
on Ashley
This Ashley Biden and the video incident just shows that she is normal. This just proves our point that itís the prohibition that is wrong, not the people violating the prohibition. I hope this doesnít turn into a big stink for her, but hopefully her prohibitionist dad will wise up and be able to deal with reality for a change. Plus, I have a warm spot for social workers as I used to be one also decades ago.  
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Comment #9 posted by FoM on March 29, 2009 at 18:15:00 PT
I think our time has come. I am so calm about it. I am not nervous or worried but comfortable. That's a great feeling after the last 8 years.
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Comment #8 posted by HempWorld on March 29, 2009 at 17:57:50 PT
In the case of Joe Biden, it's "Traffic" (the
e) all over again!
On a mission from God!
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Comment #7 posted by fight_4_freedom on March 29, 2009 at 17:50:13 PT
Drug Warrior's Daughter allegedly caught
using cocaine.By BRAD HAMILTONA "friend" of Vice President Joseph Biden's daughter, Ashley, is attempting to hawk a videotape that he claims shows her snorting cocaine at a house party this month in Delaware.The anonymous male acquaintance of Ashley took the video, said Thomas Dunlap, a lawyer representing the seller.Dunlap and a man claiming to be a lawyer showed The Post about 90 seconds of 43-minute tape, saying it was legally obtained and that Ashley was aware she was being filmed. The Post refused to pay for the video.The video, which the shooter initially hoped to sell for $2 million before scaling back his price to $400,000, shows a 20-something woman with light skin and long brown hair taking a red straw from her mouth, bending over a desk, inserting the straw into her nostril and snorting lines of white powder.She then stands up and begins talking with other people in the room. A young man looks on from behind her, facing the camera. The lawyers said he was Ashley's boyfriend of a few years.The camera follows the woman from a few feet away, focusing on her as she moves around the room. It appears not to be concealed. At one point she shouts, "Shut the f--- up!"The woman appears to resemble Ashley Biden, 27, a social worker for a Delaware child-welfare agency and a visible presence during her father's campaign for the White House. full article
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Comment #6 posted by kaptinemo on March 29, 2009 at 17:46:38 PT:
The perfect storm has arrived
After ten years of being held back.Those who've been reading here for years know that the economic situation of today had actually been predicted - here, of all places - as far back as 1999. That all the deficit spending Uncle Sam was engaging in, with no small part of it the DrugWar's tab, would someday rise to cause massive economic disruption. Back then, there were warnings, right here at CNEWS, about what Plan Colombia would actually achieve as opposed to its stated goals; then, we got slapped in the face with 9/11, the Global War on Terror, Afghanistan, Iraq, each time, the National Debt mounting higher and higher and higher. Now it's risen so high, we are bankrupt as a nation and are in grave danger of becoming another victim of the NeoLiberal economic policies that have destroyed Third World economies like the Latin American and South East Asian ones were in the 1990's. What this means for the US is that the nation must decide just how much government we can afford. And that means taking a real hard look at things that have never been exposed to that kind of scrutiny the DrugWar and everything that is associated with it. Such as the prison system, which is kept running largely through the DrugWar. Of course, those that benefit so handsomely from the Drugwar will do everything in their power to squelch anything that challenges their access to the feed trough. Just look at what happened in El Paso earlier this year, when the city council there passed a resolution calling for a debate, just a debate, on the subject of legalization of illicit drugs. All the trough-feeders went into frenzy mode, leaning on the council to overturn their own resolution. The council did so, but also made it plain they were pressured into doing so. Sooner or later, that tactic will backfire, as more and more people will need unemployment insurance and other social welfare programs for bare survival. They will not want to be told that the money is not there because it is being used to keep their kids 'safe from drugs' when their parents are trying to keep said kids safe from homelessness and malnutrition. Like I said, a perfect storm has been brewing for at least 10 years. The subject of illegal drugs is getting vastly more attention now than it has in several decades. Economic conditions will soon force choices as to allocation of increasingly scarce government resources. A dialog will have to be opened and the once avoided-like-plague issue of the DrugWar's cost to society as opposed to its' stated goals must be faced and dealt with. Our time has finally come, and it's reflected in the increasing number of media articles suggesting - and in some cases, outright demanding - that dialog. A point which is not lost on savvy pols like Senator Webb. Let's hope this time something comes of it.
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Comment #5 posted by dagman11 on March 29, 2009 at 15:38:30 PT:
I hope
I hope that they actually take the results of this investigation seriously. This business of putting nonviolent offenders in jail while releasing violent offenders to make room for them makes no sense and is out of control. Is this really the best policy we can come up with? Lets all hope that the answer is no, and we make some much needed progress.
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Comment #4 posted by itsonlyaplant on March 29, 2009 at 15:36:09 PT
Good job
Great article by Sen. Webb. More elected officials need to step up and recognize the elephant in the room. I mean the hand full of officials who can see the writing on the wall regarding cannabis can't be the only ones who see the terrible problems that prohibition brings. Money in the pockets of OUR ELECTED representatives has to stop being the motivating factor in the policies they endorse. While prohibition (among many BAD policies) is good for those few who lobby for it, it is tearing our country to shreds and people just look forward at the red herring in the road with their blinders securely in place. I am so sick and tired of the government (which is supposed to be us) telling me and tens of millions of other Americans; "No you can't do that, we have no real excuse other than, no." So, bravo Sen. Webb, keep up the good fight to rid our country of these BS policies that do nothing for our country but harm it. Rant over.
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Comment #3 posted by konagold on March 29, 2009 at 15:35:50 PT
freedom haters
prohibitionist are inherently FREEDOM HATERSThey hate us for our freedomnow where did I hear that before and which war does it justify??how do we shock and awe prohibitionist into giving us a few billion a month??was it Pogo who said we have met the enemy and it are us??as these laws are basically racist in origin and administration could the government be sued for violating our 14th amendment rights to equal protection and due process??
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Comment #2 posted by runruff on March 29, 2009 at 15:18:12 PT
Over on Huffpo
I post as runruff and as comebackid.Today a light just came on. It isn't that the prohibitionist hate pot so much but they love the prohibition!
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Comment #1 posted by FoM on March 29, 2009 at 15:06:04 PT
Thank You Senator Webb
Excerpt: Justice statistics also show that 47.5% of all the drug arrests in our country in 2007 were for marijuana offenses. Additionally, nearly 60% of the people in state prisons serving time for a drug offense had no history of violence or of any significant selling activity.
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