Jim Webb’s talked about prison reform before, and now is prepared to take action on the issue with a new bill. The introductory document notes that “with 5% of the world’s population, our country now houses 25% of the world’s reported prisoners” and “four times as many mentally ill people are in prisons than in mental health hospitals.” This fact, in particular, seems unlikely to be an effective or humane way of dealing with the issue. The legislation’s specific mandate is for not much more than the creation of a national commission on the issue. But I think that’s a good idea. The politics of trying to turn this around are treacherous, but my impression is that there’s actually a lot of common ground that people who’ve analyzed this issue seriously find themselves reaching.
A few favorite points on the issue:
– Obviously, mentally ill people should be getting treatment for their mental illness; it’s quite possible that with treatment many of these people would be no danger to anyone.
– An effective parole system could keep criminals who are also drug addicts off drugs, and thus sharply reduce their proclivity to commit crimes, without the financial or human costs involved in keeping them incarcerated over the long term.
– At the margin, it’s better to fight crime by having police officers patrolling the streets than by expanding the number of people in prison.
– Insofar as drug use is criminalized, it’s still possible to target actual law enforcement in the first instance at people involved in violent criminal enterprises.
– Overcrowded prisons are unsafe, which encourages people to join gangs which, since the prisoners get out eventually, makes the crime problem worse.
– Sentence lengths should be better-calibrated to reflect actual research on preventing crime rather than pure moralistic outrage. Keeping a person who’s likely to commit violent crimes in prison is an effective crime-control tactic, but we need to focus on people who are actually likely to commit violent crimes. Many people in prison have already aged out of the period at which violent crime is likely.
There seems to be some interest on the Hill in this bill so hopefully something will happen.