Former Virginia Sen. Jim Webb told a group of law enforcement officials meeting in Baltimore on Tuesday that he will announce whether he will seek the Democratic nomination for president in coming days.
Webb, a centrist Democrat and Naval Academy graduate who served a single term in the Senate, told several hundred gathered for the National Sheriffs' Association annual meeting that he is planning to "get a lot busier over the next week or so" and later told reporters he expects to announce a decision "within the next few days."
Webb, who previously said he would announce by the end of June, would join a growing field of Democrats seeking the nomination that is led by former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Former Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley and former Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee are also running.
Webb spoke in Baltimore on Tuesday at a presidential candidates forum organized by the Virginia-based sheriffs group. Retired Johns Hopkins neurosurgeon Ben Carson also addressed the group on Tuesday and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee spoke on Monday.
The candidates fielded questions from the sheriffs on immigration, the incarceration of the mentally ill and zero tolerance drug policies.
Webb hedged on a series of questions about President Barack Obama's decision last year to delay the deportation of millions of immigrants in the country illegally. Asked whether he supported that effort, which is now tied up in federal court, Webb instead discussed the broader immigration debate. When a reporter asked for clarification, Webb said he thought Obama's actions were legal but that he isn't sure if he would continue them as president.
Carson said he supports granting working papers, but not citizenship, to an estimated 11 million people in the country illegally -- but only once the nation's borders are "sealed."
"Give them an opportunity to become guest workers so they can at least come out of the shadows," Carson said.
Carson, who launched his campaign in May, tied the unrest in Baltimore this year and the ongoing tension between police and predominantly black communities to the economy. The unemployed in major cities, he said, are hearing about an improved economy but aren’t seeing that growth manifested in their own neighborhoods.
"You ask yourself what is going on in these cities. I think what's going on is a great deal of frustration," said Carson, a former Baltimore County resident who now lives in Florida. "Over the last few years there's been a lot of change, but not a lot of hope."
Carson said he favors expanding the use of cameras worn by police.
Webb did not address the unrest in Baltimore directly, nor did he touch on many of the questions that have risen from recent high-profile police-involved shootings. Instead, the Democrat spoke mainly about his unsuccessful effort in the Senate to overhaul the criminal justice system and drug laws.
"This isn't just about over incarceration. It's about the entire criminal justice system," Webb said of his effort. "It is in the self interest of every American that as many people who have been incarcerated as can be properly reentered into our society should be."
Both candidates said they were concerned about the high number of mentally ill in prisons and jails, many of which are run by sheriffs. Webb said that he would sign an executive order creating the same commission on criminal justice that he attempted to create with his Senate legislation.
He then shifted his answer to those who are locked up for minor drug offenses.
"Just as in mental health issues, I don't think it makes a lot of sense to put somebody in jail when they have a disease, when they have an illness," he said. "There have got to be better ways for us to approach the issues of drug use in America."
Carson agreed, saying that zero-tolerance drug policies were ineffective because they frequently landed non-violent drug users in a correction system that he described as "criminal university."
"Zero tolerance rules do not give us the flexibility that we need," Carson said.