Editorial: The U.S. needs to reform judicial system
If you overlooked the Parade Magazine in last Sunday's Star-News, it's worth digging through your stack of newspapers to read the piece by U.S. Sen. Jim Webb, "Why We Must Fix Our Prisons." Webb, the no-nonsense Democrat from Virginia, lists a plethora of statistics supporting his argument that our corrections system not only is terribly broken but also is a national disgrace.
With 5 percent of the world's population, the United States houses 25 percent of the world's reported prisoners. Our country incarcerates its citizens at a rate nearly five times the average worldwide.
About one in every 31 adults in the United States is in prison, in jail, or on supervised release - at a cost of $68 billion a year. And our prisons are essentially "breeding grounds that perpetuate and magnify the same types of behavior we purport to fear."
The numbers hit at the very heart of our vision of America as a great democracy. "With so many of our citizens in prison compared with the rest of the world, there are only two possibilities," Webb writes. "Either we are home to the most evil people on earth or we are doing something different - and vastly counterproductive." Many will say those in prisons have brought it on themselves and are getting exactly what they deserve. But why such a great discrepancy with the rest of the world?
It's time to answer some tough questions. But first we need politicians who are courageous enough to ask them, no doubt at the risk of ridicule from the tough-on-crime bunch that seems more satisfied with slamming cell doors than long-term solutions. Fortunately, Webb, a highly decorated Marine Corps veteran of the Vietnam War has never been short on courage.
One obvious area that needs to be addressed is our insistence on putting nonviolent drug offenders in prison. In 1980, we had 41,000 drug offenders in prison; today we have more than 500,000, an increase of 1,200 percent. A large number of those offenders are imprisoned not for dealing drugs, but for possessing a drug to which they often are physically addicted.
Then there is the volatile issue of race.
African-Americans make up 12 percent of our population. About 14 percent use illegal drugs. That number is almost identical across all racial and ethnic lines. African-Americans, however, make up 37 percent of those arrested on drug charges, 59 percent of those convicted, and 74 percent of those sentenced to prison.
Webb has offered no silver bullet. But his willingness to bring the subject to the table may begin a conversation that up until now we've not been willing to have.