U.S. Senator James Webb (D-VA) plans to introduce legislation on a long-standing passion of his: reforming the U.S. prison system, the Washington Post reports. Jails teem with young black men who later struggle to rejoin society, he says. Drug addicts and the mentally ill take up cells that would be better used for violent criminals. Politicians have failed to address this costly problem for fear of being labeled “soft on crime.” It is a gamble for Webb, a fiery and cerebral Democrat from a staunchly law-and-order state. Virginia abolished parole in 1995, and it trails only Texas in the number of people it has executed. As the U.S. struggles with two wars overseas and an ailing economy, overflowing prisons are the last thing on many lawmakers’ minds. The Post did not privide details on what Webb hopes to accomplish in his legislation, but he has said that he wants to create a national panel to recommend ways to overhaul the criminal justice system.
Webb has never been one to rely on polls or political indicators to guide his way. He seems instead to charge ahead on projects that he has decided are worthy of his time, regardless of how they play — or even whether they represent the priorities of the state he represents. State Sen. Ken Cuccinelli II, a Republican running for attorney general, said the initiative sounds “out of line” with the desires of people in Virginia but not necessarily surprising for Webb. His supporters say there is no better messenger on the unlikely issue of criminal justice reform. “It’s perceived as a great political sin to represent any position besides ‘lock ’em up and throw the key away,’ ” said state Sen. J. Chapman Petersen. “With Jim’s personality, he’s never going to strike somebody as being soft on crime or any other issue. For that reason, he might be better able to lead this cause. He’s a pretty tough guy.”