Want a sense for how difficult it is to reform the U.S. prison system? Last night in the Senate, Jim Webb put forward his long-awaited bill to create a 14-member commission to examine federal, state and local criminal-justice practices. The commission would’ve looked at everything from prison overcrowding to drug-war policies and made recommendations for how to reduce the overall incarceration rate, tamp down on prison violence and improve mental-health treatment. That’s it. A non-binding, blue-ribbon commission. Even conservative and law-enforcement groups had backed it as a reasonable first step.

(Michael S. Williamson)

Radley Balko smells hypocrisy: “The drug war is as direct and aggressive an assault on federalism and the power of states and localities to make their own criminal justice policy as anything else the federal government does. Yet Hutchison, Coburn and the rest of the GOP senators who killed the Webb bill all support it,” he writes. “Along comes a bill that would create a committee to make some non-binding suggestions … and suddenly all of these GOP senators get a case of the constitutional vapors.”

For context, here’s an old piece that Webb wrote for Parade magazine about why he’s so obsessed with prison reform (the piece contains the usual mind-numbing stats — one in every 31 U.S. adults is in prison, jail or supervised release; we now spend $68 billion per year on corrections). And here’s an old Washington Post profile of Webb’s crusade to reform the justice system. Once Webb retires from the Senate in 2012, it’s unclear who else, if anyone, is going to take up this contentious issue with such an intense focus. Which means it’s hard to see reforms getting any easier.