Want to Cut Spending? Invest in Jim Webb's Criminal Justice Commission

Conventional wisdom says that Republicans did so well in the November elections because the public is concerned about our growing national debt. This belief is propelling Republicans and moderate Democrats, most notably in the Senate, to block new spending proposals in the current lame duck session. I salute those seeking to restore fiscal discipline in Washington, but I hope the Senate understands that not all spending is the same. Some proposals to spend money now will almost certainly allow for reduced spending down the road. Senator Jim Webb's bill to establish a National Criminal Justice Commission is a perfect example. Congress should pass his bill before it adjourns.

Sen. Webb has shown uncommon courage in leading the charge for a wholesale review our nation's criminal justice systems -- both federal and state. As he often notes, the United States is home to just five percent of the world's population but 25 percent of the world's reported prisoners. Our nation's current incarceration rate of 756 inmates per 100,000 citizens is nearly five times higher than the world average. According to a recent Pew Foundation Report, one in every 31 adults in the United States is now in prison, in jail, or on supervised release. The cost of this incarceration spree is skyrocketing. Federal, state, and local spending on corrections now costs roughly $68 billion per year.

If we are honest, we will admit that some of the most devastating consequences of our criminal justice systems do not lend themselves to measurement in dollars and cents. After all, what is the true cost to society of millions of children being raised without the help and influence of an incarcerated parent? How do we measure the lost trust in a criminal justice system that appears to penalize people differently based on the color of their skin? Clearly, not all of our losses can be monetized.

The Webb proposal is straightforward and uncontroversial. It authorizes creation of a bipartisan, blue-ribbon commission to conduct a top-to-bottom review of the entire criminal justice system and offer concrete recommendations for reform within 18 months. Congress could then choose which ideas to implement, a process that would lead to positive innovations in public safety.

Over the past 25 years, law enforcement, academicians, crime victims, and criminal justice reform advocates alike have studied the issues and identified key ways to improve the criminal justice system. Developing a strategy for system improvement based on research and knowledge about what works will increase public safety as well as public confidence in the criminal justice system. Equally important in this climate, perhaps, is that the commission's recommendations will help the federal and state governments find ways to reduce spending on criminal justice without compromising safety.

The bill enjoys wide and deep support from groups normally divided on criminal justice issues, including the Fraternal Order of Police and the ACLU. The House of Representatives overwhelmingly passed the Webb commission bill this summer. If the Senate wants to show the voters it understands and shares their desire for reducing federal spending and improving public safety, it will pass the Webb bill before adjourning.