Jim Webb is going to introduce a prison reform measure today. I'm very interested to hear it.
As the article points out, prison reform is a tough issue because it's tough to argue for a better prison system, and not come across as arguing for a weaker prison system - and competing politicians are happy to use that confusion against each other. But it's time to discuss this, because it's too expensive not to. In my state, 1 out of 200 people is incarcerated (160,000 people) and the overall U.S. rate is the highest in the developed world, higher even than South Africa. While this suggests that there may be - or are - deeper problems - that's not an excuse to start paroling dangerous offenders. While we look more deeply at why we have this problem, we still have to keep offenders off the street, but to do that in a more rational manner we should ask ourselves two questions:
1) How to make prisoners more productive. We still need roads and ditches, don't we? We're hobbled by a racist past against chain gangs, but I'm all for increased transparency into the operation of prisons if it means the prisoners can offset the cost of rent and food for these hundreds of thousands. In fact, why not set up parole programs so that one of the factors in determining parole is how much value the prisoner has produced? Someone who's turned out ten thousand units in his time is probably a better risk than someone who's turned out one thousand.
2) Decide who most needs to be in there. I'm sure there are statistics about which types of criminals are more recidivist. What I wonder about is whether there's any connection to parole decisions. Someone who's in on a marijuana conviction is not the same risk as someone in on an assault conviction.
I haven't seen Webb's proposal but I support any effort to solve this problem.