WASHINGTON – Calling the US criminal justice system "a national disgrace," US Senators urged for a top-to-bottom review with an eye on reforms aimed at reducing America's massive prison population.
Democratic Senator Jim Webb, backed by Republican Senator Arlen Specter, introduced legislation to create a blue-ribbon panel that would conduct an 18-month assessment and offer concrete recommendations for reform.
"America's criminal justice system has deteriorated to the point that it is a national disgrace," Webb said, noting that the United States has five percent of the world's population but 25 percent of the world's prisoners.
The Virginia lawmaker noted soaring numbers of drug offenders in prison, and charged that four times more mentally ill people are incarcerated than housed in mental health hospitals.
"We are doing something drastically wrong," said Webb, whose plan also aims to improve the US response to armed gangs, especially drug-related groups, as it seeks to bring the prison population down from about 2.4 million people.
The commission would seek to improve US responses to gang violence, overhaul drug criminalization, improve mental illness treatment, improve prison administration and establish a system to reintegrate prisoners into society, his office said.
About five million people are on probation or parole.
"We are not protecting our citizens from the increasing danger of criminals who perpetrate violence and intimidation as a way of life, and we are locking up too many people who do not belong in jail," said Webb.
The 11-member panel would comprise experts drawn from criminal justice, law enforcement, public health, national security, prison management, social services, prisoner reentry into society and victims' rights.
US President Barack Obama would appoint the chairperson, while the top leaders of both parties in the House and Senate, as well as the Democratic and Republican governors' associations, would name the other members.
More than one percent of adults in the United States sit behind bars, with a startling one in nine young black men incarcerated, according to a February 2008 study by the non-partisan Pew Center on the States.
By comparison, China, with a population of one billion people, was second in the world with 1.5 million inmates, followed by Russia with 890,000 people in the slammer, the study said.
America's incarceration rate exceeds that of nations like South Africa and Iran.
By comparison, 93 people in Germany are in prison for every 100,000 people, including minors, the Washington-based independent research group said. The rate is about eight time higher in the United States: 750 per 100,000.
The statistics are particularly high among minorities.
While one in 106 adult white men are incarcerated, one in 36 Hispanics and one in 15 African-Americans are behind bars, according to Pew's examination of Justice Department data from 2006. Younger black men fare even worse, with one in nine African-Americans ages 20 to 34 held in cells.
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