Friday, August 21, 2009

A Time to Fight for Sentencing Reform

In late March, when Senator Jim Webb introduced a bill in the Senate calling for sentencing reform, Doug Berman’s sentencing blog was brimming with comments. Not surprisingly, a number of them reflected the reflexive vitriol that for too long has passed for discourse on criminal justice in America. Others, however, saw Webb as that exceedingly rare figure: a politician of genuine courage.

Tonight I went online to learn more about Webb’s background, and Elizabeth Drew’s article in the June 26, 2008 issue of The New York Review of Books did not disappoint. It was chuck full of information − such as Webb’s legendary boxing match at West Point against Oliver North, the famously gung-ho figure in the Iran-Contra scandal of the 1980s.

Though he grew up as a Democrat, Jim Webb broke with the party over President Carter’s grant of amnesty to Vietnam War draft evaders. Webb was a Marine rifle platoon commander in Vietnam, where he won two Purple Hearts, and later served as President Reagan's Secretary of the Navy. His military upbringing is also reflected in a plainspoken manner and a strong personal code of honor. That code of honor helps him recognize when the military is being misued, and led to his opposition to George W. Bush's war in Iraq.

"Nothing worth having comes without some kind of fight," the Canadian musician Bruce Cockburn sang in the 1980s, after a visit to Central America when it was besieged by civil wars. As we look to the fall, and battles in Congress over health care reform and so much else, there will be ample occasion to put that notion to the test, and to apply the title of Jim Webb’s 2008 book: A Time to Fight.

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