The Senate recently voted to reject a bill introduced by Sen. Jim Webb, D-VA, to create a bipartisan commission to study the nation’s broken criminal justice system. But its narrow defeat has only emphasized the strong support that exists for this legislation outside the halls of Congress.
There is no doubt that the country’s criminal justice system needs reform. The United States has 5 percent of the world’s population, but 25 percent of its prisoners — that’s 2.3 million Americans in prison, with an additional 5 million on probation or parole. The Census Bureau estimates that states and local governments spend around $195 billion a year on criminal justice services, a figure that continues to rise even as crime rates decrease. More than half of federal prisoners are incarcerated for non-violent offenses, and minorities are vastly overrepresented in jails and prisons. Groups and citizens from across the political spectrum supported the bill, demonstrating widespread dissatisfaction with this current system. The outpouring of support should compel this gridlocked and hyper-partisan Congress to take immediate action.
The idea of a national commission to study local, state, and federal criminal justice practices and make recommendations for evidence-based reforms is not new. In 1965, President Lyndon Johnson convened the President’s Commission on Law Enforcement and the Administration of Justice, which created the most recent study of its kind, as the nation faced rising crime rates, the increased use of narcotic and other illegal drugs, and overburdened local and state courts. According to the Commission’s executive director, James Vorenberg, the group “sought to show how police, courts, and correctional agencies could both reduce crime and treat people more decently.” The Commission made more than 200 recommendations, few of which, apart from expanded funding for local law enforcement, Congress passed into federal law. Instead, smart recommendations, like diverting drug offenders to treatment programs rather than prisons, expanding the ability of local courts to handle increased caseloads, and using technology to optimize administrative processes, were ignored. To this day, courts remain overburdened, non-violent drug offenders represent a huge proportion of prison populations, especially at the federal level, and court dockets are clogged and disorganized.
Advocates, reformers, academics, faith groups, law enforcers, and citizens from across the political spectrum have called for the federal government to sponsor this study of local, state, and national criminal justice policies. The Brennan Center, along with a diverse coalition of groups, including organizations like the National Correctional Industries Association, the American Probation and Parole Association, the American Jail Association, the United Methodist Church, the ACLU, Amnesty International, and the NAACP, worked in support of the Act. Appealing to Senators’ desires for justice, fairness, and fiscal discipline, our organizations were successful in encouraging 57 Senators to vote in favor of the bill last month, just shy of the 60 votes required for passage.
Since the vote, Senator Webb’s bill has received positive media attention from a number of major outlets, including editorial pieces by The New York Times and The Washington Post. A conservative blogger at the National Review called the Senate’s failure to pass the bill an “absolute scandal.” Critics claim the commission violates states’ right to determine their own criminal justice policies. But this argument rings hollow, as the commission would merely study state and local policies and make non-binding recommendations for reform based on best practices gleaned from the states themselves. Even fiscal objections to the bill lack punch — the commission would cost $5 million dollars in FY 2012, a pittance compared to the potential savings the group’s recommendations could yield.
“We cannot tolerate an endless, self-defeating cycle of imprisonment, release, and reimprisonment which fails to alter undesirable attitudes and behavior,” said President Johnson in his 1965 announcement of his Commission. “We must find ways to help the first offender avoid a continuing career of crime.” Nearly 45 years after the Johnson administration’s review — and at a time when state, local, and federal budgets are tight — finding ways to protect public safety, support rehabilitation, reduce racial disparities, and promote fairness and equity in our laws while enacting cost-effective criminal justice policies should remain a national priority. This 112th Congress, already accused of being the least productive Congress in recent history, must recognize the broad support this idea has garnered and pass the National Criminal Justice Commission Act without further delay.