Jim Webb’s attack on American Gulag

Published 9:04 am Monday, July 6, 2009

By By Alexander Cockburn
Sen. Jim Webb of Virginia introduced his bill to set up a bipartisan National Criminal Justice Commission. "We find ourselves as a nation," Webb declared, "in the midst of a profound, deeply corrosive crisis," vis., "the national disgrace of our present criminal justice system" and "the disintegration of this system, day by day and year by year." This "is dramatically affecting millions of lives, draining billions of dollars from our economy, destroying notions of neighborhood and family in hundreds of communities across the country, and — most importantly — it is not making our country a safer or a fairer place."
True words.
The goal of Webb's legislation? To establish a national commission to examine and reshape America's entire criminal justice system, the first such effort in more than 40 years. Its aims as outlined by Webb are to refocus incarceration policies on criminal activities that threaten public safety; to lower the incarceration rate; to decrease prison violence; to improve prison administration; to establish meaningful re-entry programs for former offenders; to reform drug laws; to improve treatment of the mentally ill; and to improve responses to international and domestic criminal activity by gangs and cartels.
Webb compared the implications of his bleak data to the financial meltdown that has already eaten a trillion dollars of public funds and the "War on Terror" that has eaten another trillion, plus tens of thousands of lives.
America has 5 percent of the world's population but 25 percent of the world's known prison population; 7.3 million incarcerated, on probation or on parole; 2.38 million are in prison — five times the world's average rate. Imprisoned drug offenders are up from 41,000 in 1980 to 500,000 by 2008, a significant percentage of them with no history of violence or high-level drug activity. There is extreme disproportion in the drug sentencing — blacks have roughly the same drug-use rate as whites but are seven times more likely to go to prison where there's hopeless overcrowding with all hope abandoned and extremely high recidivism rates. Four times as many mentally ill people are in prisons than in mental health hospitals, roughly 350,000 compared to 80,000.
One very important omission from Webb's profile of crisis was the crisis in prison medical (non)care, now so dreadful in California as to be taken out of California hands and managed by a court-appointed federal judge. This is clearly a contentious issue since Jerry Brown plans to run for governor on a platform that denounces medical care for prisoners as a frivolous expense.
Gov. "Moonbeam" Brown has learned his lesson and become No-Nonsense Jerry, who rejects prison medicine as "holistic" silliness. Considering the ever-growing number of three-strike lifers vegetating in their own organic manure who have Alzheimer's and can't remember their names let alone their crimes, the cynicism of Jerry Brown — whose family has lived off the people in every possible "job" they could "run" for (after) for over 50 years — is unfathomable.
What hope of reform? For 30 years, the political economy of the American gulag has had irresistible allurements: the "tough on crime" Seal of Approval for political candidates from police chiefs, prison guard unions and the victims' lobby. What governor, given the fate of Dukakis of Massachusetts or Ryan of Illinois, dares to pardon or even parole? In my recollection, only Mike Huckabee, governor of Arkansas, released substantial numbers from prison.
"Reform of the justice system" is now on lips that would otherwise disdain those words because of economic crisis, which has enabled reform of New York's terrible Rockefeller drug laws: The prisons housing the swelling flood of convicts become the darling of upstate New York. What legislator would vote to kill all those rural jobs, however counterproductive? Before the fiscal meltdown, hardly any; since the fiscal meltdown, a solid majority. New York State cannot now afford the huge workfare program that developed in the upstate counties around Rockefeller's prison-packing program. The money just isn't there. So, soon thousands of those convicts who shouldn't have been there in the first place won't be there either.
Aside from the spur of fiscal crisis in every state, the only apparent opening political wedge discernible in Webb's opening statement is the issue of organized Mexican gangs that supposedly exist in "hundreds" of American cities. "There are an estimated 1 million gang members in the United States, many of them foreign-based," Webb declared. "Every American neighborhood is vulnerable. Gangs commit 80 percent of the crime in some locations. Mexican cartels, which are military-capable, have operations in 230-plus U.S. cities. U.S. gangs are involved in cross-border criminal activity, working in partnership with these cartels."
Yet the organized gangs of prison guards and cement contractors who control all the state legislatures are far more powerful.
Webb's stark recitation of the grim facts was all the more dramatic since it was devoid of editorial comment. It reminds one of Machiavelli's little theorem: the more difficult the diagnosis, the easier the cure; the easier the diagnosis, the harder the cure. When it is obvious to all, there is no cure.
Alexander Cockburn is co-editor with Jeffrey St. Clair of the muckraking newsletter CounterPunch. He is also co-author of the new book "Dime's Worth of Difference: Beyond the Lesser of Two Evils," available through www.counterpunch.com.

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