- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 28, 2009

This week, the Justice Department marks the 25th anniversary of the agency’s National Crime Victims’ Rights Week. Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. will lead a series of observances, including a candlelight vigil, to mark the occasion.

Victims rights are a major component of the efforts to reform the federal and state criminal justice systems. In March, Sens. Jim Webb, Virginia Democrat, and Arlen Specter, Pennsylvania Republican, introduced the National Criminal Justice Commission Act of 2009.

“The elephant in the bedroom in many discussions on the criminal justice system is the sharp increase in drug incarceration over the past three decades,” Mr. Webb said on the Senate floor. “In 1980, we had 41,000 drug offenders in prison; today, we have more than 500,000, an increase of 1,200 percent. … [A] significant percentage of those incarcerated are for possession or nonviolent offenses stemming from drug addiction and those sorts of related behavioral issues.”

According to Mr. Webb’s press release, this bill will “create a blue-ribbon commission [that will conduct] an 18-month, top-to-bottom review of the nation’s entire criminal justice system and offering concrete recommendations for reform.”

Mr. Webb also said in his March 26 Senate speech that “to look at all of the elements in this system, how they are interrelated in terms of the difficulties that we have in remedying issues of criminal justice in this country and to deliver us from a situation that has evolved over time where we are putting far too many of the wrong people into prison, and we are still not feeling safer in our neighborhoods, we’re still not putting in prison or bringing to justice those people who are perpetrating violence and criminality as a way of life.”

Studies from the Sentencing Project, the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, the National Urban League and the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation show that America’s incarceration rate has exploded state and federal corrections budgets, forced early parole for some inmates for lack of prison space, made millionaires of private prison operators, and made more difficult the re-entry of people who can become productive citizens if given the opportunity. The current system also maintains the race-based disparities that have devastated some black communities. According to the Sentencing Project, one in eight black males in their 20s are in prison or jail on any given day.

Bureau of Justice Statistics data show that blacks represent 46 percent of the 2.4 million people currently incarcerated, despite being 12 percent of the general U.S. population. Blacks make up at least 50 percent of the prison populations in 12 states and the District of Columbia. The disproportionate warehousing of black men in the name of public safety has helped to destabilize families around the nation by removing potential fathers and husbands.

The U.S. - with 5 percent of the world’s population - incarcerates 25 percent of the world’s reported prisoners, Mr. Webb said. Incarcerated drug offenders have soared 1,200 percent in the past 30 years. Four times as many mentally ill people are in prisons than in mental health hospitals.

Recidivism rates and job-training opportunities will be reviewed. In some states, the training inmates receive while incarcerated cannot help them once paroled. California, for example, provides barber training for inmates, but the state Legislature bars parolees from obtaining barbering licenses.

There is a possibility that the nation will move away from the incarceration-only view of criminal justice and public safety. The difficult economic times the country faces may lead people to more carefully consider what government is doing with its tax revenues in this costly government service.

Mr. Webb is taking a political risk by calling for a national review.

“Good for him,” said Tim Lynch, director of the Cato Institute’s Project on Criminal Justice. “With more than 7 million people under criminal justice supervision (prison, parole, probation), a thorough review is desperately needed. You can tell that Webb is new to the Congress, because he is raising a subject that most of the long-term incumbents would rather not discuss.”

Michael K. Fauntroy, a former analyst for the Congressional Research Service and research analyst at the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, is an assistant professor of public policy at George Mason University.

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