In reading Glenn Greenwald’s column at Salon, I learned the extent to which Senator Jim Webb has heroically spoken out on the need for prison reform. Webb certainly hits the nail on the head. Our current prison system is dehumanizing and it drains the public treasury. We can do much much better. Here are Webb’s words:
Let’s start with a premise that I don’t think a lot of Americans are aware of. We have 5% of the world’s population; we have 25% of the world’s known prison population. We have an incarceration rate in the United States, the world’s greatest democracy, that is five times as high as the average incarceration rate of the rest of the world. There are only two possibilities here: either we have the most evil people on earth living in the United States; or we are doing something dramatically wrong in terms of how we approach the issue of criminal justice. . . .
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%. The blue disks represent the numbers in 1980; the red disks represent the numbers in 2007 and a significant percentage of those incarcerated are for possession or nonviolent offenses stemming from drug addiction and those sorts of related behavioral issues. . . .
In many cases these issues involve people’s ability to have proper counsel and other issues, but there are stunning statistics with respect to drugs that we all must come to terms with. African-Americans are about 12% of our population; contrary to a lot of thought and rhetoric, their drug use rate in terms of frequent drug use rate is about the same as all other elements of our society, about 14%. But they end up being 37% of those arrested on drug charges, 59% of those convicted, and 74% of those sentenced to prison by the numbers that have been provided by us. . . .
Another piece of this issue that I hope we will address with this National Criminal Justice Commission is what happens inside our prisons. . . . We also have a situation in this country with respect to prison violence and sexual victimization that is off the charts and we must get our arms around this problem. We also have many people in our prisons who are among what are called the criminally ill, many suffering from hepatitis and HIV who are not getting the sorts of treatment they deserve.
Importantly, what are we going to do about drug policy – the whole area of drug policy in this country?
And how does that affect sentencing procedures and other alternatives that we might look at?
Greenwald picks up where Webb’s quote (above) stops. This is a critical issue that needs immediate attention, for all of our good. We can do a lot better than arguing to lock up all the “bad” guys but then defining the “bad” guys simplistically and then making it all worse with the way we treat those “bad” guys.