- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Sen. Jim Webb, Virginia Democrat, recently criticized the U.S. criminal justice system for the skyrocketing incarceration rate as a means of providing public safety. “You can’t jail your way out of a problem like this,” Mr. Webb said during his speech at a forum sponsored by the American Constitution Society at the National Press Club on Wednesday before a group of criminal justice reform advocates.

The senior senator from Virginia was referring to findings in a 2008 study by the nonpartisan Pew Center on the States that showed that the U.S. has the highest incarceration rates in the world.

At the beginning of 2008, 7 million people were behind bars, on probation or on parole, with 2.3 million actually incarcerated at a cost of $27,500 a year to keep them locked up, based on the study. Virginia spends 60 cents on incarceration for every dollar that it spends on higher education. Maryland tops Virginia, spending 74 cents on the dollar.

China ranks second with 1.5 million people in prison, while having four times the population as the U.S.

Mr. Webb also said the U.S. faces enormous problems with the number of offenders re-entering society from state and federal prisons. Two out of three released prisoners will be rearrested, and one in two will return to prison within three years of release, according to the study.

To tackle the issue of the nation’s growing prison population and the high cost to state budgets required to house them, Mr. Webb proposed reforming sentencing polices and other measures to provide rehabilitation for ex-offenders.

Mr. Webb attributed the high rate of incarceration upon multiple factors, including mandatory minimum sentencing, three strikes laws, and the imposition of life sentences, which increased by 83 percent from 1982 to 2003.

In addition, Mr. Webb criticized long sentences imposed by state and federal sentencing guidelines since the mid-1980s, especially for nonviolent crimes such as drug possession and theft.

Mr. Webb stressed the rehabilitation of nonviolent inmates, especially those returning home, as a means of preventing them from going back to the streets and a life of crime. Those rehabilitation services for ex-offenders would include housing, education, employment opportunities and health care. Mr. Webb said there are 350,000 mentally ill prison inmates in need of medical treatment.

Reducing the prison population and protecting the public safety against the most violent of offenders who deserve to be locked up, would reduce federal and state budgets required to house inmates, Mr. Webb said.

Mr. Webb has introduced legislation before Congress that will support alternatives to incarceration, including drug treatment, counseling and parole reform.

“There are too many people in prison, and for too long,” Mr. Webb said.

c Joseph Young is a writer and photographer living in the District.

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