As the situation of prisoners at Guantanamo continues to inform the national debate around incarceration, more and more observers are pointing out that Gitmo is far from America's only prison problem.The prison crisis in the United States is at a historic high. As Facing South has reported before, the United States incarcerates one out of every 100 adults. Combine this with the number of people under probation or parole, and the statistic is even starker: one in 31 adults (7.3 million people) is under some form of correctional supervision.

But talk of prison reform has been making its way through Congress this year. On Thursday the Senate Judiciary Committee held a hearing on the National Criminal Justice Commission Act of 2009, SB 714. This important piece of legislation was introduced in late March by Sen. Jim Webb (D-VA), and if passed would create a "blue-ribbon commission" charged with completing an 18-month "top-to-bottom review" of the country's entire criminal-justice system, ultimately providing Congress with specific, concrete recommendations for reform. The legislation has received bipartisan support and currently has 29 cosponsors in the Senate.

Webb wrote about the importance of the bill this week at The Huffington Post:
America's criminal justice system is broken.
How broken? The numbers are stark:
• The United States has 5% of the world's population, yet possesses 25% of the world's prison population;
• More than 2.38 million Americans are now in prison, and another 5 million remain on probation or parole. That amounts to 1 in every 31 adults in the United States is in prison, in jail, or on supervised release;
• Incarcerated drug offenders have soared 1200% since 1980, up from 41,000 to 500,000 in 2008; and
• 60% of offenders are arrested for non-violent offensives--many driven by mental illness or drug addiction.

The statistics are startling and are only worsening year by year. "Either we are home to the most evil people on earth or we are doing something different -- and vastly counterproductive," Webb has said.

Among its objectives, Webb's bill aims to study ways to reduce the incarceration rate, establish re-entry programs for ex-offenders, decrease prison violence, reform the nation's drug policies and improve treatment of the mentally ill.

Observers were surprised to see Webb step up to lead the cause for prison reform in the Senate. He's a first-term Senator from Virginia, one of the most "tough-on-crime" and "lock-em-up" states in the country. Virginia abolished parole in 1995 and is second only to Texas in the number of prisoners it executes.

But in his testimony at Thursday's hearing, Webb underscored that is in the interest of every American, from every political and philosophical perspective, to address the "profound, deeply corrosive crisis that we have largely been ignoring at our peril." The prison crisis in the United States, particularly the nation's drift toward mass incarceration, "is dramatically affecting millions of lives, draining billions of dollars from our economy, destroying notions of neighborhood and family in hundreds of communities across the country, and, most importantly, it is not making our country a safer or a fairer place," he said.

The Southern Crisis

Since 1980, the country's prison population has quadrupled to more than two million, with the South accounting for nearly half of that increase. The prison population increase could be attributed largely to "tough-on-crime" criminal justice policies enacted in the 1980s and 1990s. Among them were mandatory drug sentences, "three-strikes-and-you're-out" laws for repeat offenders, and "truth-in-sentencing" laws that restrict early releases. These draconian policies uniquely hurt the South, especially where enacted with key backing from "get-tough-on-crime" lawmakers (resulting in, among other things, the disenfranchisement of millions of potential Democratic voters).

When it came to locking people up, the South led the nation, with more of its population in prisons or jails than any other part of the country. By 2000, nine of the 20 states with the highest incarceration rates were in the South. By 2008, the top five states with the highest adult incarceration rates were in the South: Louisiana led the way, with one out of every 55 residents behind bars. Mississippi, Georgia, Texas, and Alabama finished off the top five. Kentucky led the country in 2008 in the rate of inmate growth, its prison population swelling 12% over the previous year.

The Changing Tide

The tides have been changing though in the last few years. Many states have edged away from the mass lock-up approach, mostly to save money. During the current recession, the rising costs of incarceration have been taking a significant toll on already-cash strapped state budgets. States spent a record $68 billion on corrections in 2008. As a result, this year alone several states have begun to take up lower-cost alternatives to mass incarceration.

Human rights groups have long argued and fought for reform in the U.S. criminal justice system. Prison advocates say that the time is ripe for reform, and that Webb's legislation comes at an important turning point.

This year discussion finally begun to make its way into national debate as human rights violations in prisons and detention centers have captured the headlines. Prisons rights advocates hope that with President Barack Obama in the White House, and strong Democratic majorities in Congress, the political climate will be more favorable to reform than it has been in years. The economic downturn has also created a unique space at both the federal and state level for lawmakers to talk about serious reform to sentencing and incarceration policies.

As Webb said of his bill:
The goal of this legislation is nothing less than a complete restructuring of the criminal justice system in the United States. Only an outside commission, properly structured and charged, can bring us complete findings necessary to do so.

Fixing our system will require us to reexamine who goes to prison, for how long and how we address the long-term consequences of their incarceration. Our failure to address these problems cuts against the notion that we are a society founded on fundamental fairness.