By Sandhya Somashekhar
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 29, 2008; B01
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."
Webb is a decorated Marine who served as Navy secretary under President Ronald Reagan. He has also been a journalist, a novelist and a Hollywood screenwriter. In an interview last week, he said his experience in the military, a culture that is "disciplined but fair," led to his interest in the prison system.
However, he believes it is his experience as a writer that will allow him to articulate a new approach.
"I enjoy grabbing hold of really complex issues and boiling them down in a way that they can be understood by everyone," he said. "I think you can be a law-and-order leader and still understand that the criminal justice system as we understand it today is broken, unfair, locking up the wrong people in many cases and not locking up the right person in many cases."
In speeches and in a book that devotes a chapter to prison issues, Webb describes a U.S. prison system that is deeply flawed in how it targets, punishes and releases those identified as criminals.
With 2.3 million people behind bars, the United States has imprisoned a higher percentage of its population than any other nation, according to the Pew Center on the States and other groups. Although the United States has only 5 percent of the world's population, it has 25 percent of its prison population, Webb says.
A disproportionate number of those who are incarcerated are black, Webb notes. African Americans make up 13 percent of the population, but they comprise more than half of all prison inmates, compared with one-third two decades ago. Today, Webb says, a black man without a high school diploma has a 60 percent chance of going to prison.
Webb aims much of his criticism at enforcement efforts that he says too often target low-level drug offenders and parole violators, rather than those who perpetrate violence, such as gang members. He also blames policies that strip felons of citizenship rights and can hinder their chances of finding a job after release. He says he believes society can be made safer while making the system more humane and cost-effective.
That point of view has gained steam with members of both parties. Virginia Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) recently proposed earlier release for some prisoners convicted of nonviolent crimes as a cost-cutting measure.
But the movement is alarming to drug enforcement advocates. Tom Riley, spokesman for the Office of National Drug Policy Initiatives, said it has become an "urban myth" that the nation imprisons vast numbers of low-level drug offenders.
People are often surprised to learn that less than one-half of 1 percent of all inmates are in for marijuana possession, he said. And those offenders were caught holding, on average, 100 pounds.
"That's a pretty different picture than I think most people have," Riley said. "It's true, we have way too many people in prison. But it's not because the laws are unjust, but because there are too many people who are causing havoc and misery in the community."
J. Scott Leake, a GOP strategist in Virginia, said there is a reason Virginians enjoy low crime rates. "[It's] because of the policies we've already put in place," he said. "If Senator Webb were to try to roll some of that back, I think he would have a fight on his hands."
Webb isn't known to shy from a fight. He said this spring that he'll introduce legislation that creates a national panel to recommend ways to overhaul the criminal justice system.
In his article about the Japanese prisons, Webb described inmates living in unheated cells and being prohibited from possessing writing materials. Arnett's head was shaved every two weeks, and he was forbidden to look out the window.
Still, Webb said, the United States could learn from the Japanese system. In his book, "A Time to Fight," he wrote that the Japanese focused less on retribution. Sentences were short, and inmates often left prison with marketable job skills. Ironically, he said, the system was modeled on philosophies pioneered by Americans, who he says have since lost their way on the matter.
Webb believes he can guide the nation back. "Contrary to so much of today's political rhetoric," he wrote, "to do so would be an act not of weakness but of strength."