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Senator Webb is a hero

Senator Jim Webb, who is perhaps the best thing to come out of Virginia since Thomas Jefferson, is on a campaign to reform our criminal justice system. He’s currently trying to pass legislation that will consider how our criminal justice system is broken, and what we need to do to fix it. He wants to look at how we incarcerate folks with mental illness, and why our incarceration rates are the highest in the civilized world. And, he keeps pushing the proposal.

As Senator Webb puts it a quote from an article in the Washington Monthly:

Let’s start with a premise that I don’t think a lot of Americans are aware of. We have five percent of the world’s population; we have 25 percent of the world’s known prison population. 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.

Obviously, I’m a big fan of this effort. Senator Webb showed a lot of intellectual strength in the way he responded to President Bush’s 2007 State of the Union address, and his campaign for Senate in 2006 was a lot of fun to watch. I’m very excited that he’s willing to touch such an unpopular, yet deeply troubling, problem.

If you have questions about how federal criminal charges are different than state criminal charges, please visit this page on Maryland federal criminal charges or Washington DC federal criminal charges.

My concern, though, is that when he frames the issue as things either being broken or Americans being evil, there may be a third way which suggests itself too readily to those who support our current system of criminal justice. My concern is that our judges, or prosecutors, or pro-prison folks, may think that it isn’t that we, as Americans, are evil, but, rather, that there are certain neighborhoods, the ones with the crime, the ones with the drugs, the ones with the gangs, that are more likely to have folks in them that are evil. And, as it happens, those neighborhoods happen to be the ones that folks who go to prison come from.

Some similar belief about the differences between most folks and folks in those neighborhoods may explain what federal prosecutors think when they take a case from a local jury to a broader regional jury so that a different community will determine whether to believe the police or whether another young man should go to prison.

What’s hopeful about Senator Webb’s vision, is that he’s asking us to look at each other, those in good neighborhoods and bad neighborhoods alike, as American first. What’s troubling, is that many among us may not be interested in doing that.