Senator Jim Webb is working on prison reform.

This spring, Webb (D-Va.) plans to introduce legislation on a long-standing passion of his: reforming the U.S. prison system. Jails teem with young black men who later struggle to rejoin society, he says. Drug addicts and the mentally ill take up cells that would be better used for violent criminals. And politicians have failed to address this costly problem for fear of being labeled “soft on crime.”

It is a gamble for Webb, a fiery and cerebral Democrat from a staunchly law-and-order state. Virginia abolished parole in 1995, and it trails only Texas in the number of people it has executed. Moreover, as the country struggles with two wars overseas and an ailing economy, overflowing prisons are the last thing on many lawmakers’ minds.

They say there is no better messenger on the unlikely issue of criminal justice reform.

“It’s perceived as a great political sin to represent any position besides ‘lock ’em up and throw the key away,’ ” said state Sen. J. Chapman Petersen (D-Fairfax). “With Jim’s personality, he’s never going to strike somebody as being soft on crime or any other issue. For that reason, he might be better able to lead this cause. He’s a pretty tough guy.”

Webb is a decorated Marine who served as Navy secretary under President Ronald Reagan. He has also been a journalist, a novelist and a Hollywood screenwriter. In an interview last week, he said his experience in the military, a culture that is “disciplined but fair,” led to his interest in the prison system.

Petersen is class of ’90. He is certainly the Eph most likely to hold statewide office in Virginia someday. Previous crime-related debate here. Webb’s book might make for a good Williams Reads choice in 2010.

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