Jim Webb's Last Crusade

Article excerpt

Byline: Andrew Romano

One in 31 Americans is lost in the criminal-justice system. As his senate career winds down, Webb is determined to change that.

Jim Webb is in jail. This is not because an aide to the combustible Virginia senator was caught carrying his boss's loaded 9mm semiautomatic pistol into a congressional office building, which actually happened in 2007. Nor is it because Webb "slugged" President Bush on a White House receiving line, which he was once reportedly tempted to do. Today's visit is voluntary--and that's why it's so remarkable.

As Republicans in Washington waste yet another summer afternoon whining about Democrats, and Democrats play rubber to their glue, Webb has skipped town and driven west, 30 minutes down I-66, to Fairfax County's juvenile detention center. There are no TV crews to dazzle. No local leaders to praise. And no voters to persuade. Just Webb doing what he's been doing for nearly three decades now: touring a prison and asking a lot of questions.

Webb is as much a hero as any nonfictional person can be. In 1969, he shielded a fellow soldier from a grenade and caught a back full of shrapnel as he singlehandedly destroyed three Viet Cong bunkers, earning a Navy Cross for his valor. (He later wrote several novels about the war.) But what Webb has accomplished over the past two years has been as brave, in its own quiet way, as what he did that day in the An Hoa Basin: he has transformed criminal-justice reform from a fringe concern--an issue his own advisers called "political suicide," he tells Newsweek--into a real possibility. "Once a kid is incarcerated, that's it for him," Webb says. "We need smarter ways of dealing with people at apprehension, and even whether you decide to arrest. The types of courts they go into--drug courts, as opposed to regular courts. How long you sentence them. How you get them ready to return home."

Webb, a law-and-order type who once derided affirmative action as "state-sponsored racism," is an unlikely crusader for a cause typically championed by civil-rights activists and drug-war opponents. And yet, in 2009, the senator introduced legislation that would create the first comprehensive national review of crime policy in 45 years--legislation that he has been fighting, with plenty of "stress, insanity, and gnashing of teeth," as one aide puts it, to pass, in vain, ever since. Now Webb, who recently announced that he will not seek a second term in 2012, thinks he may have finally found his moment. "The timing is right," says Jeremy Travis, president of John Jay College of Criminal Justice. "We have millions of people in prison when states are struggling to balance their budgets, and, for the first time, a vibrant, nonideological middle ground on crime policy. This is a moral and fiscal problem now.."

Hence Webb's field trip to Fairfax. As the superintendent flaunts his pet innovations--a family-style cafeteria, two-teacher classrooms, a teen lending library--the senator nods his approval, fists clenched, jaw jutting, grumbling an occasional query. Part of him, however, is somewhere else. At one point, Webb spots some speakers on the wall (for eavesdropping), and returns, as he often does, to Vietnam, noting how Saigon's Rex Hotel had a similar setup. But the place he can't stop thinking about, the place that really gnaws at him, isn't quite so far away. Along one carpeted, sunlit hallway--the facility looks more like a suburban middle school than a prison--Webb pauses and turns to his tour guide.

"Ever been to the Richmond city jail?" he asks, referring to Virginia's most notorious (and notoriously overcrowded) prison, where one inmate recently died of heat exposure and others were busted dealing heroin. "This is the same state. But I have visited at least a dozen prisons in my life, and I've never seen anything as bad. Go from there to here, and it's like two different countries."

There are two types of people in America: those, like Webb, who think the criminal-justice system desperately needs to be fixed, and those who haven't been paying attention. …