Monday, March 30, 2009

The Return of Courage

I've long been a fan of Sen. Jim Webb, dating back to my military service from 1979-82, when I first read his Vietnam war novel "Fields of Fire."

Through several other works of fiction (and nonfiction), to his stint as Secretary of the Navy, and his improbable victory in the US Senate race in Virginia, Webb has been impressive in his consistency of message, maintaining his core values, and being unafraid to speak the truth, even when doing so is unpopular or unwelcome.

When I read of his initiative to kick off reforms of the US prison system, it made perfect sense. He's referenced the shortcomings of modern American criminal justice in several of his tomes, including comparing and contrasting it to the more highly effective Japanese system, which as Webb points out was rebuilt after World War II based on the American, and to a lesser extent, English justice framework.

Let's start with a premise that I don't think a lot of Americans are aware of. We have 5% of the world's population; we have 25% of the world's known prison population. We have an incarceration rate in the United States, the world's greatest democracy, that is five times as high as the average incarceration rate of the rest of the world. There are only two possibilities here: either we have the most evil people on earth living in the United States; or we are doing something dramatically wrong in terms of how we approach the issue of criminal justice. . . .

Salon's Glenn Greenwald has penned an interesting article on Webb's effort, and he makes some observations that are similar to mine, both here and in my posting of January 1, 2009, Justice, The Old Fashioned Way.

What's encouraging about Webb's stance is that it's not without risk. There's a crime & punishment hysteria in this country that's been fed and supported by weak politicians and government operatives for decades, and presenting any ideas outside of the mainstream law and order channel are sure to be met with derision and aggression.

Considering that winning the Virginia Senate seat as a Democrat was no easy feat, and with a certain re-election challenge waiting, pushing such a progressive initiative appears to some to be a poorly calculated political gamble. For those who know Webb, however, it's simply another demonstration of his courage and commitment to do what is right rather than what is expedient.

What we're witnessing is a return to leadership after an untenable absence the past eight years. From the financial meltdown to fixing Detroit, economic stimulus to social reform, leaders are accepting the mantle of accountability and are exhibiting steady, courageous, matter-of-fact solutioning of long-neglected problems.

Serious times call for serious leaders. We're beginning to see who has chosen to step up to the challenge.

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