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April 23rd, 2009
02:32 PM ET

America's prisons a "national disgrace"

[cnn-photo-caption image= caption="Senator Jim Webb calls our prison system a national disgrace."]

There is a new push from Congress to try to overhaul America's prisons.

Senator Jim Webb (D-VA) calls our system a national disgrace. He says while we have just 5% of the world's population, we have 25% of the world's known prisoners. Also, drugs, corruption and violence are rampant inside of our jails and prisons.

Senator Webb is co-sponsoring a new bill to try to tackle these problems. Before launching this bill, his office collected facts about America's prison system.

According to his research, America has 2.3 million people behind bars. That’s five times higher than the world's average incarceration rate. Another 5 million people are either on probation or out on parole. That makes them a part of the criminal justice system. And the number of jailed drug offenders here in the U.S. has increased 1200% since 1980. That research also says four times as many mentally-ill people are in prison than in mental health facilities.

Senator Webb spoke to Kiran Chetry on CNN’s "American Morning" Thursday.

Kiran Chetry: You are pushing for legislation to fix our nation’s prisons. What are the biggest problems as you see them?

Jim Webb: Well, I've been involved in this issue for many years as an attorney and as a journalist. In fact, at one point, I spent a month going through the Japanese criminal justice system. When I came to the Senate in 2007, I decided to hold hearings on mass incarceration and on drugs policy and to try to figure out where the criminal justice system itself is broken. We've got 2.38 million people in prison. We’ve got 7 million inside that criminal justice system. And yet our neighborhoods aren't any safer, particularly with the violent gangs, transnational gangs, etc.

The system is broken everywhere. And so I introduced a bill at the beginning of this year to get a national commission, a high-ranking, blue ribbon commission with a leader appointed by the president to get an entire look at the system all the way from sentencing to the conditions inside prisons, to re-entry programs and a look at the gang situation too, and to come up with a specific set of policy recommendations where we can fix the whole thing. We have 24 or 25 sponsors already in the Senate on this. The administration has said they support us. It's something we urgently need to do along with the other problems we have here.

Chetry: It's quite a tall order. You know that yourself. You say that our prisons are overcrowded. We know that that. They are ill-managed in some cases. There is violence and physical abuse, hate, breeding grounds that perpetuate and magnify these types of behaviors. But why can't we control what happens in our prisons?

Webb: Well, the question isn't just the prisons. The question is the criminal justice system at large. How we decide who goes to jail, what we do with them when they are inside jail, how we assist people who want to lead a better life when they get out, how we deal with the situation with gangs. They all interrelate and I think it's one of these things that every American has self-interest in fixing. Yet, when you get up here in the policy level, it just continually falls off the radar screen because politicians don't want to be accused of being soft on crime and it's not one of these issues that you see make the floor in a comprehensive way. This is what we want to do. This is like one chance in 50 years to really get our arms around this and fix it.

Chetry: I want to ask you about the huge percentage of growth in incarceration since the 1980s. A lot of this is the result of non-violent crimes. Research shows that 60% of people in state prisons who are serving time for a drug offense have no prior history of violence or any significant selling activity. So once again, the question goes back to legalization. Is there some way to address this problem and would you support perhaps legalizing marijuana?

Webb: Well, I think what we need to do is to put all of the issues on the table. You're correct. If you go back to 1980 as a starting point, I think we had 40,000 people in prison on drug charges and today, we have about 500,000 of them. The great majority of those are nonviolent crimes, possession crimes or minor sales. At the same time, we've got a situation with Mexican drug cartels conducting violence along the border, operating in more than 230 American cities and we aren't getting our arms around that in a proper way. We need to put it all on the table. That's why we need a presidential commission to look at these things, people who have high stature in these career areas and to report to Congress about the best way to go forward. But nothing should be off the table.

Chetry: And that includes possibly looking at legalization?

Webb: I think they should examine every aspect of drugs policies to see what is working and what is not working and where the consistencies are and, quite frankly, where the inconsistencies are in terms of how people end up in the system with similar activities.

Filed under: Crime
soundoff (14 Responses)
  1. Janet

    One of the reasons why the prisons are over crowded with the non-violent low level is because the Federal Government adds years onto the inmates for not ratting out on other people. I know of a case were a non-violent inmate low level who now is doing 10-years was told by the FBI that if he didn't tell them who he was working for they would make his life holly hell and would make sure he would be in prison for a long time. Then you have a person who was busted for a 40 ton pot operation, and the government prooved he had been doing it. Plus this person was a developer in the Tahoe, California area. After he ratted everyone out the Federal Government gave him a two year sentance and gave his money back and property.
    So is this fair proccess?

    February 26, 2010 at 11:08 pm |
  2. Jamie

    I do not believe in the Federal sentencing laws at all...they took the power away from the judges and gave them these ridiculous guidelines to go by and I think that issue needs tobe addresssed. And also I have a friend that is in prison right now and got 35 years for a bogus crime adn did not have but a public defender to represent him and in which means he did not have any counsel and there are murderers child molesters robbers that are getting out of prison before him he seen the parole board once and they brought up stuff that did not even pertain to him...what kind of systems do we have here.

    January 27, 2010 at 5:56 am |

    I support this 1000%

    Tom, Kathy, Juila, chuck, Lesile, Jamie and Ab I agree with you all

    The taxpayers need to speak up and get angry at paying their ax dollars to the BOP. I need my husband home to take care of me and my elder father that lives with me. his is a non violent low level doing a 12 sentence been gone for 4 years got 8 more to do. there must be another way to punish and reform these prisoners. I have heard about 2 murderer doing less time then my husband and one is out of prison now

    I am going crazy

    January 23, 2010 at 9:14 pm |
  4. Julia

    We stopped trying to rehabiliate people and began seeing them as less than human. When we did that we condoned abuse. Once it was poor state facilities that were sub par. Now we have federal prisons that are part of the problem, not part of a solution. Badly run, rampant with gangs, dirty, abusive and dishonest personnel is the order of the day. Staff fails to respond to legitimate issues. There is seldom fairness which breeds anger. Food is bad, making one wonder who is skimming the fat? We throw all these people, gangs, mental and physically ill people together and expect anything good to come out of that? Some of the people are so violent they need to be caged but these are thrown in with people there for drug use or white collar offenses and a public that says "so what." Go figure? We've made a mess of this but what can you expect when our leaders employ torture for political prisoners. What will it take to turn it around? A mircale? I support Senator Webb's efforts 100%. Its time.

    November 8, 2009 at 6:41 pm |

    we arrest more of our own citizens than the rest of the world.! that tells u something.the government is getting bigger and meaner .RAPISTS AND MURDERS should go to jail but not sum lowlife drug-user who only hurts himself .AMERICAN PRISONS destroys American lives and not giving a 2nd chance or at least coming to our senses to realize that its a Drug war we cant win and never will.

    June 16, 2009 at 12:28 pm |
  6. Barbara Alligood

    Why can't we just separate the violent offenders from the non violent offenders in the prison system. If you put a violent offenders in the same system as non violent offenders, all you are doing is exposing the non violent offenders to people who can only drag the entire prison system down to their level.

    April 24, 2009 at 8:25 pm |
  7. Todd

    What we need, is to Legalize Weed.

    April 24, 2009 at 6:58 am |
  8. Leslie Macleod

    way the go senator.. its about time someone starts to speak out about this stuff. no one understand it nor believes it is happening until you are caught up in it. my only thought is this, please dont only be speaking about drugs. in general the total amount of people in prison are non violent people. it doesnt always have to do with drugs.. there is fraud also which is non violent and they are just white collar crime dudes.... we need to re-phrase this to NON VIOLENT OFFENDERS that being the whole relm of them. drugs, users, dealer, fraud, ect..

    the people need to get angry at paying so many of your tax dollars to the BOP and UNICOR (Bush) so that america can keep putting all of or loved ones in prison for gross amounts of time....

    my man is canadian and would have got 6 yrs tops here but america came and got him and now its 15 yrs down there. plain stupid crazy crap that i dont understand..

    keep up the good work senator, i back you all the way

    April 23, 2009 at 10:41 pm |
  9. jaime woodard

    Support HR 1529 second chance for ex-offenders @ we deserve our lives and sign the petition. Its unfair that non-violent ex-offenders with a CDS are restricted from getting financial aid. The laws promote recidivism. You don't have to level the playing field just give ex-offenders the opportunity to play. We have degrees and trade skills, we have not given up on ourselves but it seems America has given up on us. Jobs are a start but we deserve careers.Senator Webb thanks for being brave and speaking up. Our community of non-violent offenders is massive and we will make a difference.

    April 23, 2009 at 10:20 pm |
  10. Ab

    I feel we really need to look at sentencing guidelines. Judges aare maximizing sentencing on non-violent criminals that really just need re-hab or community service or probation. The cost of incarerating 1st time non-violent offenders in appalling. I support Senator Webb in the fight for the good time bill HR 1475 and the HR 61 bills. Ask your congressmen to support the fight to reduce incaarceration for non-violent offender, not just the drug related non violent, but all non violent offenders.

    April 23, 2009 at 10:16 pm |
  11. Kathy

    There has to be a different/better way to deal with non-violent offenders. In the Federal System alone 74% of the 203,000+ inmates are non-violent. At an approximate cost of $40,000/yer per inmate you are talking about some serious money! Is this the best use of tax-payer dollars? I think not. These people could be out leading productive lives, families could be reunited. Better to spend a little money on a few more PO's and less on incarceration.

    April 23, 2009 at 8:49 pm |
  12. Tom

    People can take action to support Sen. Webb's important bill at

    April 23, 2009 at 7:14 pm |
  13. P. M. Hinton

    I was esp. struck by the Senator's research that four times as many mentally-ill people are in prison than in mental health facilities. Are our prisons becoming warehouses for the mentally ill who get caught up in an uninformed, ill-prepared justice system? Talk about cruel and unusual punishment!

    The entire system cries out for reform. Good for Senator Webb.

    April 23, 2009 at 4:50 pm |
  14. Richard Bailey

    You should checkout the Prisons in Florida..especially the over 60 humans that have served their time in Florida Prisions that are forced to live under a bridge in Miami. We've never the USA that is, done this to the worst of murders in America but it is going on right NOW!

    April 23, 2009 at 2:41 pm |