Jim Webb stepped firmly on a political third rail last week when he introduced a bill to examine sweeping reforms to the criminal justice system. Yet he emerged unscathed, a sign to a political world frightened by crime and drug issues that the bar might not be electrified any more.
"After two [Joint Economic Committee] hearings and my symposium at George Mason Law Center, people from across the political and philosophical spectrum began to contact my staff," Webb told the Huffington Post. "I heard from Justice Kennedy of the Supreme Court, from prosecutors, judges, defense lawyers, former offenders, people in prison, and police on the street. All of them have told me that our system needs to be fixed, and that we need a holistic plan of how to solve it."
Webb's reform is backed by a coalition of liberals, conservatives and libertarians that couldn't have existed even a few years ago.
Webb's bill calls for the creation of a bipartisan commission to study the issue for 18 months and come back with concrete legislative recommendations.
Liberals, who for decades were labeled "soft on crime" by conservatives, crept out to embrace Webb's proposal. The bill was cosponsored by the entire Senate Democratic leadership and enthusiastically welcomed by prominent liberal bloggers. The blogosphere, dominated by younger activists, has been particularly open to calls for drug and criminal justice policy reform.
Support for the proposal has come in from the right, too. The Lynchburg News and Advance a conservative paper that publishes in the hometown of Jerry Falwell's Liberty University, weighed in favorably.
"America's prisons -- both federal and state -- are overflowing with prisoners. The United States has about 5 percent of the world's population; we have about 25 percent of the world's known prison population, Webb estimates," offered the editorial board. "Something, somewhere is seriously wrong."
Libertarian support for reform of the criminal justice system is a given, but some traditional conservatives back the plan, too, including Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who is the ranking Republican on the subcommittee that will weigh in on the legislation, and Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Penn.), who is ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Conservative blogger Erick Erickson of RedState.com tells the Huffington Post he's open to Webb's bill.
"I think it is worth considering, particularly in the light of drug laws. It seems at some point people will realize, assuming we maintain illegality for drugs, that treatment is a far better alternative to incarceration," says Erickson.
He adds, however, "that reforming the criminal justice system is mostly irrelevant. First you've got to stabilize families, which will then lead to fixing the education system, which will then allow you to actually fix the criminal justice system."
Webb couches the effort in fairly straightforward terms. "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," Webb said on the Senate floor when introducing the bill.
"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."
Over the weekend, the family-friendly Parade magazine featured a cover story by Webb titled "Why We Must Fix Our Prisons."
Having moved mountains to pass an historic expansion of the GI Bill in his first two years last session, Webb has an unusual amount of credibility for a senator of such short tenure. "I believe we established a legislative prototype with the GI Bill which brought people from across the aisle together to build broad support for the bill," says Webb. "I plan to continue to apply the GI Bill prototype as we move forward in this newest legislative endeavor."
Obama's selection of Joe Biden to be vice president removes from the Senate one of the most vocal advocates of a hard-line crime and drug policy. Biden authored many of the laws that have led to the current prison situation.
Webb discussed his measure Monday on NPR's The Diane Rehm Show Monday, and the conversation was dominated by discussion of drug legalization or decriminalization.
"The reality of what we're doing right now is that all this incarceration has not stopped drug usage at all," said Webb.
Instead, he argued, chasing after drugs "has burned up so much of our law enforcement energy and money that we can't adequately focus on the areas that I'm really concerned about, a big part of that being transnational gang violence in this country. You don't have to go to the Texas border to see it. You can go to Fairfax County [in Virginia] and take a look at MS-13 and how they operate. So we need to take a holistic approach on this."
Caller after caller argued on behalf of legalization; Rehm noted that the subject is "always the first question." Webb didn't shy away from it. "It's a very real question. It's a very legitimate question," he told one caller, noting that the past three presidents and more than half of Americans have used illegal drugs at some point in their lifetimes.
"At some level, most people do enjoy their beer or whatever it is," Webb said. "On the other end of the rail, there is tremendous danger, particularly among young people, when you get to drugs, that we have to have some protections and some sort of education. There you have the question. It's a legitimate question. And the best way to deal with this is to put it in front of people who are going to look at all the ramifications of this and come up with something."
Ryan Grim is the author of This Is Your Country On Drugs: The Secret History of Getting High in America.