As Dahlia Lithwick noted in Slate this past weekend, Guantanamo may be America’s most infamous “prison problem,” but it is far from our only one.
Our sentencing and incarceration system is broken. With the U.S. having only 5 percent of the world’s population and yet almost 25 percent of the world’s prisoners, we are imprisoning people at nearly five times the world average; according to Lithwick,
approximately one in every 31 adults in the United States is in prison, jail, or on supervised release.
Democratic Senator Jim Webb of Virginia, who famously served as Secretary of the Navy under Reagan and was at one point thought to be under consideration as Obama’s running-mate, has introduced landmark legislation to retool our prison system. Called the National Criminal Justice Commission Act of 2009, Webb’s bill would set up a commission to examine the American criminal justice system and make recommendations about how to best reform it.
Webb has a particular idea of what needs to be reformed in the U.S. prison system: he is particularly concerned with incarceration rates of drug users and people with mental illness, and with the seeming inability of the current system to deal with gang-related crime. He also emphasizes the inconsistency and inadequacy of re-entry programs for people leaving prison and relates these shortcomings to this country’s high rate of recidivism among the formerly incarcerated.
I’m excited to see what kind of traction Webb’s proposal brings. This year has been a particularly tough one for prison reform activists, with the shuttering of the Jeht Foundation, the leading U.S. funder on the issue, which lost its assets in the Bernard Madoff ponzi scheme. Though a great deal of attention has been paid to prison conditions at Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, and, to a lesser extent, Bagram, the state of our domestic prisons and detention centers has received less coverage.
In her article, Lithwick hits on one important point that Webb fails to mention: the disproportionate rate at which African-Americans are arrested and convicted for drug-related charges. But the issue of prison reform stretches beyond what either Webb or Lithwick have covered so far. Last summer, before any of this was out in major news sources, Boston Review ran “After Prison: A special issue on incarcerated America.” Of course, grassroots groups – notably Critical Resistance – and outspoken scholar-advocates like Angela Davis have been calling for prison reform for decades now. We can only hope that Webb will build on their work and be accountable to them as he goes forward with his new, and urgently needed, criminal justice bill. (Full disclosure: I’m currently interning with Boston Review.)
A version of this piece was originally posted at BR Footnote.