Rupert Cornwell: War hero tackles US over degrading prison conditions

Out of America: Dumping grounds for drug addicts, the mentally ill and petty thieves exposed by Democrat senator

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Few United States senators have a more unusual CV than Virginia's Jim Webb. He's a Democrat who was once a Republican and served as Navy Secretary under Ronald Reagan. He's a decorated Vietnam veteran and the highly successful author of Fields of Fire, which is said by many to be the best novel ever written about that war. When he made his senate bid in 2006, his Republican opponent ran adverts criticising some explicit sexy passages in other Webb works. Now he is embarked on perhaps his most improbable mission: the senior senator, from one of the toughest law-and-order states, wants to restore humanity, and proportionality, to the punishment of criminals.

All the focus, right now, is on reforming the US healthcare system. Think prisons, and you think Guantanamo Bay, and the bizarre debate over whether the transfer of its inmates to the mainland would see alleged Islamist terrorists burst out of fearsome maximum-security jails such as Florence, Colorado, and run amok across the Rockies.

When it comes to sending people to jail, America is the undisputed world champion. In 1970, a mere 200,000 people were behind bars. Last year, 2.3 million were held in federal, state and county prisons, more than 1 per cent of all adults in the US and five times the international average. Blacks, predictably, bear the brunt of this compulsion to incarcerate, accounting for 40 per cent of the prison population. This punishment industry gives work to more than two million, more even than the 1.7 million employed in higher education.

The establishments themselves hide behind bureaucratic euphemisms such as the phrase "Department of Corrections". In reality, US prisons are hideously overcrowded breeding grounds for crime, and dumping grounds for drug addicts and the mentally ill: "America's default mental health institutions", as one expert described them. Precious little "correcting" goes on. Of the 700,000 men and women who are released each year, two-thirds are back in jail within three years. As Webb puts it: "Either we are the most evil people on earth, or we're doing something wrong." You don't have to subscribe to the country's spiritually exalted view of itself to know which.

The vast majority of those behind bars pose no threat to society; most inmates in state prisons have been convicted of non-violent offences, mainly related to drugs or property. The colossal growth in prisoner numbers can be traced to the collapse of inner cities and the urban rioting of the late 1960s, the futile "war on drugs", an over-rigid parole system – and, of course, politicians' awareness that nothing wins elections like being tough on law and order.

Back in 1988, the elder George Bush used the infamous Willie Horton case to brand Michael Dukakis, his Democratic presidential opponent, soft on crime. In 1994, California became the first state to pass a "Three Strikes and You're Out" bill; within a year, 24 states had followed in an effort to target violent repeat offenders. Instead they led to nonsenses (upheld by the Supreme Court, no less) such as the sentencing of one recidivist to 25 years to life for stealing a bag of golf clubs. No less pernicious are the minimum-sentencing requirements imposed by many states, which force judges to send people to prison unnecessarily, or for too long.

And so a vicious cycle has set in, whereby the country locks up ever more people for ever less serious offences, at ever greater expense, with ever less resources for rehabilitation.

Common sense – with the help of a firm shove from economic reality – may finally be making a comeback and, as ever, California is setting the example. It's not that the place has gone soft on crime: the Golden State is still planning a new death row facility, even though no one has been executed there since 2006. It's simply that conditions in California's prisons have become untenable, with some operating at 300 per cent of capacity, where violence is endemic, and lockdowns are often the only practical means of keeping order.

Now a panel of federal judges has stepped in, ordering Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger to come up with a plan by mid-September to cut the prison population by a quarter, or 40,000, over the next two years.

If Webb has his way, as California goes, so goes the nation. This spring, the Virginia senator introduced the National Criminal Justice Commission Act of 2009. Assuming Congress passes the measure, a top-level body will be established to conduct a review of the US sentencing and prison system, in which nothing would be off-limits, even drug decriminalisation. Only when the commission has submitted its recommendations would lawmakers be in a position to act. And even then, they may not. America's prisons may be falling apart but many Congressmen will not dare suggest less means more in the fight against crime. Unless of course, you've got the bipartisan war-hero credentials of Jim Webb.

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