Webb Sets His Sights On Prison Reform

Sen. James Webb plans to introduce legislation to create a national panel to study the justice system.
Sen. James Webb plans to introduce legislation to create a national panel to study the justice system. (Jay Mallin - Bloomberg News)
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By Sandhya Somashekhar
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 29, 2008

Somewhere along the meandering career path that led James Webb to the U.S. Senate, he found himself in the frigid interior of a Japanese prison.

A journalist at the time, he was working on an article about Ed Arnett, an American who had spent two years in Fuchu Prison for possession of marijuana. In a January 1984 Parade magazine piece, Webb described the harsh conditions imposed on Arnett, who had frostbite and sometimes labored in solitary confinement making paper bags.

"But, surprisingly, Arnett, home in Omaha, Neb., says he prefers Japan's legal system to ours," Webb wrote. "Why? 'Because it's fair,' he said."

This spring, Webb (D-Va.) plans to introduce legislation on a long-standing passion of his: reforming the U.S. prison system. 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. And 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. Moreover, as the country struggles with two wars overseas and an ailing economy, overflowing prisons are the last thing on many lawmakers' minds.

But 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 (R-Fairfax), who is running for attorney general, said the initiative sounds "out of line" with the desires of people in Virginia but not necessarily surprising for Webb. The senator, he said, "is more emotion than brain in terms of what leads his agenda."

Some say Webb's go-it-alone approach could come back to haunt him.

"He clearly has limited interest in the political art, you might say, of reelection," said Robert D. Holsworth, a political science professor at Virginia Commonwealth University.

Webb's supporters say his independent streak will be rewarded. They note that his early opposition to the Iraq war helped carry him to victory over incumbent Republican George Allen in 2006. Two years after taking office, they point out, he took the unusual step as a freshman senator of authoring major legislation: a new GI Bill to expand education benefits to veterans of recent wars.

They 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 (D-Fairfax). "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."

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