Friday, April 03, 2009

Sen. Webb: A Man For All Seasons

Keynote Remarks of Senator Jim Webb Hamilton Project Policy Discussion "From Prison to Work: Overcoming Barriers to Reentry"

December 5, 2008

"The seminal event for me in terms of our own system came about 25 years ago when I became one of the first foreign journalists to be allowed into the Japanese prison system. It was an incredible eye-opener, not only in seeing how the prison systems were run, but when I started studying the Japanese criminal justice system writ-large as compared to our own system even 25 years ago, I was struck by the statistic that in Japan, which has half of our population - there were only 40,000 sentenced offenders in prison compared to the 780,000 people in prison in the United States.

"Those of you who are familiar with the system today know that we now have more than 2.3 million people in our jails and approximately 7 million people involved in the criminal justice system that are either incarcerated, on probation, or on parole. That is a staggering statistic not only in terms of fairness - in terms of how we approach the well-being of our society but in terms of what it does to our economy in two different ways: the cost of incarceration and the cost of lost opportunities for people that enter the prison system and will have a very difficult time for the rest of their lives.

"I want to be very clear at the outset that I feel very strongly about the need to put the right people behind bars. We all want to see violent criminals brought to justice. I personally have a very strong feeling about the danger of organized gangs in this country and the fact that we need to enforce the laws in a proper way when it comes to that type of activity. But there is something else going on when we are locking up such a high percentage of our people, marking them at an early age and in many cases eliminating their chances for a productive life as full citizens.

"Since I have been in the Senate, I have been focusing on these issues and held a number of hearings. In June 2008, I chaired Joint Economic Committee hearing that explored the impact of the illegal drug economy in the United States, addressing the need for policy reforms and develop a line to measure where the problem begins, where it hits the street, how it impacts individuals and what we can do to address it.

"In October of 2007, I chaired a hearing on the larger issue of incarceration to put a price on the problem with the cost to our economy, the cost of running so many prisons and the system writ-large, and the cost of lost opportunity.

"Most recently, I put together a half-day, three-panel symposium with the help of George Mason University that took a broad look at the difficult range of issues regarding the parameters of illegal drugs on our society, and to discuss real solutions for immediate and long-term implementation.

"As Mr. Rubin mentioned, I was a co-sponsor of the Second Chance Act, which was passed and signed into law earlier this year. It is a proactive measure that works to provide job training, drug treatment, and other re-entry programs to help ex-offenders stay off the streets and hopefully reduce recidivism rates. I am also a co-sponsor of the Gang Abatement and Prevention Act, which would provide more than $1 billion over five years to combat gang violence. In that regard, I have had a number of personal meetings with law enforcement officials on the implications of gang violence in Virginia.

"So what do we know from all these experiences? We know that the United States locks up more people than any other country. With only 5 percent of the world’s population, the United States now has 25 percent of its prisoners.

"We know that we are spending an enormous amount of money. Professor Western estimates that annual correctional spending is $70 billion, with state spending on corrections increasing 40 percent over the past twenty years. Professor Glenn Loury, who appeared before the Joint Economic Committee last year, has estimated that we are spending $200 billion per year on corrections and law enforcement.

"We know that minority communities are disproportionately represented in the nation’s prisons. African-Americans, who are 13 percent of the population, are more than half of all prison inmates compared to one-third twenty years ago.

"We know we are witnessing a very violent war on our border which is largely driven by the drug trade. As the Washington Post reported yesterday, there were 700 killings on the Mexican border last month alone.

"We know that prisons are housing a great portion of our nation’s mentally ill. The number of mentally ill in prison is nearly five times the number in inpatient mental hospitals. Forensic psychologist Edith King pointed out that, “Nationwide, the jails have become the Number 1 holding stop for the mentally ill.”

"And we know that we all want to ensure that as many resources as possible are devoted to something of a triage here. We need to take care of violent crime, separate how we deal with drug offenses, and deal with those with mental illness. It’s not a crime to be mentally ill, it’s not a crime to be addicted to drugs. It is a crime to live by violence and to extort money from people who are trying to live a basic life.

"Another piece of information I feel strongly about is that we are not locking up the right people; we are locking up the wrong people too often all across our country.

"Statistics have shown that the number of people in custody on drug charges increased thirteen times in the last 25 years. Despite the number of people we have arrested, the illegal drug industry and the flow of drugs have remained undiminished.

"The analysis we have seen in terms of drug use patterns in this country is very interesting when you compare them to who is being imprisoned on non-violent drug offenses. We have seen that drug use really does not vary by ethnic group in the United States; there is very little variance whatsoever. But there is a vast difference in how different racial and ethnic groups fare with respect to our criminal justice system. African Americans are estimated at 14 percent of regular drug users, 37 percent of those arrested for drug offenses, and they are 56 percent of persons in state prisons for drug crimes.

"All of the money and turmoil that has been poured into this issue has not really affected supply or usage rates. In 2006, the last study that was done in terms of high school seniors’ attitudes about drugs showed that 86 percent of high school students in the United States report that it is “very easy” or “fairly easy” to obtain marijuana. Forty-seven percent report the same for cocaine, 39 percent for crack, and 27 percent for heroin.

"We have also learned that there is a disconnect in terms of how we define gangs. We know they are involved in widespread criminal activity, yet when we talk to people who work in the area of criminal justice we are unable to gather how gangs operate outside of certain communities or across state borders or, in many cases, internationally. We have to do a better job of answering these critical questions.

"We know that our current combination of enforcement, diversion, interdiction, treatment, and prevention is not working. We need a better formula in terms of how we are dealing with these different areas.

"We have learned that alternatives to enforcement have shown in a variety of approaches that we can reduce incarceration, improve public safety, and produce social benefits in excess of their costs if we move toward more creative ways of dealing with these problems in our society.

"We need more of the type of analysis that you will hear today. We need to hear more from the experts so that we can really examine our options. We also need to work with law enforcement to get our arms around coordinated criminal activity that has crossed state and national borders.

"Most importantly, we need to engage the American people in this conversation. Too often we have these discussions in compartmentalized ways, or they do not happen at all. I recall at the beginning of the presidential campaign, Arianna Huffington from the Huffington Post wrote an article saying that if this did not become one of the major issues of the presidential campaign it would be a national shame. Well, it did not become an issue in the presidential campaign at all and it is a national shame. We need to have this discussion.

"I believe personally we need to support programs that work for adult offenders, help prevent crime, and re-integrate prisoners being released. In this context, there is an enormous need to shift our policy choices to evidence-based options that are proven to contribute to lower crime rates. Political fear and ideology have too long driven policy in this area.

"I have been very impressed by what I have seen with respect to drug courts. I think if we separate drug use from other types of crime and deal with it in a different way, we are going to affect the criminal justice system and we are going to help improve the lives of people who simply get involved in non-violent drug use.

"We have seen a number of assessments in this area. The Center for Court Innovation did a broad review. Their bottom line was the average reduction in recidivism associated with drug courts was 13 percent. In other words, people who went through drug courts, as opposed to going into the regular criminal justice system were 13 percent less likely to be involved in the criminal justice system after that. The Washington State Institute for Public Policy looked at 57 studies and estimated an eight percent decrease in crime associated with drug courts. In my office, we will be looking at ways to examine the further expansion of drug courts.

"I believe we need to treat drug addiction and to separate drug addiction from prison environments to the extent that we can.

"We need to support community and faith-based programs. The last Administration put a lot of emphasis on areas in faith-based initiatives that fit with its own political ideologies. I believe that church structures around the country, which I can certainly see in Virginia, are natural repositories that already exist where we can encourage re-entry programs without having to create new bureaucracies.

"I believe that we need to take the type of expertise that we will hear today and vigorously present it to the new Administration. We have the opportunity to have a new set of eyes on this problem and a chance for some concrete programs and solutions. That is why we are here today.

"A final point, I think from my experience over the past couple years is that we have a tremendous opportunity to work on this in a bipartisan fashion. When I reach out to colleagues on the other side of the aisle and start discussing this problem, there are people over there who understand the damage that our present way of doing business in the area of criminal justice is putting onto our society: economically, as this organization is looking at it, in terms of personal harm, and in terms of lost opportunities.

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