Senator Jim Webb (D-Va.) introduced the National Criminal Justice Act of 2009 last week, an exciting piece of legislation that will create a commission to study, among other things, America’s war on drugs.
The commission will look broadly at criminal justice reforms, with an emphasis on reducing America's rising prison population (now the largest in the world per capita). Centered in that debate is the hard truth about America’s punitive drug laws. One-third of U.S. inmates are drug offenders, and many of them are in jail for possession, not sale or manufacture.
Senator Webb's legislation calls, specifically, for a close look at our drug laws, and his remarks before the Senate show a refreshingly honest approach to the issue:
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. In 1980, we had 41,000 drug offenders in prison; today we have more than 500,000, an increase of 1,200% … and a significant percentage of those incarcerated are for possession or nonviolent offenses.
Webb isn’t playing it safe. Many politicians like to skirt around the edges of criminal justice reform, pursuing incremental changes and avoiding politically risky topics. Webb’s critique, on the other hand, is fundamental.