Bipartisan momentum for landmark reform to America’s criminal justice system continues to build both on and off Capitol Hill.
Last week, a wide range of policy experts testifying at a congressional hearing made clear the urgency of criminal justice reform.
“The time to enact meaningful criminal justice reform is now,” declared Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, setting the tone early for last Wednesday’s hearing before the full committee.
Ranking member Elijah Cummings, D-Md., agreed, imploring Congress not to allow this rare bipartisan moment for criminal justice reform to pass without action.
Wednesday’s hearing was the second of two parts. The first hearing saw a bipartisan panel of senators, representatives and two state governors testify about the need to address problems in our criminal justice system.
All of them, on both sides of the aisle, expressed their strong support for enacting meaningful reform.
Several related reform packages have been introduced in the current legislative session in both the House and Senate.
Included is the Smarter Sentencing Act of 2015, which would reduce mandatory minimums and give judges more sentencing discretion in cases involving low-level drug offenders.
In addition to this are the CORRECTIONS Act (in the Senate) and the Recidivism Risk Reduction Act (in the House).
These would allow inmates who pose a lower risk of recidivism to serve part of their sentences outside a prison cell, such as in home confinement or a community corrections facility, if they complete programs or engage in other positive activities designed to lessen the likelihood that they would recidivate in the future.
Another proposal, the SAFE Justice Act, includes variations of these “front-end” and “back-end” proposals, among other provisions.
Front-end reforms aim to reduce the length of criminal sentences; back-end reforms offer convicted criminals a chance to reduce their time in prison through, for example, job training and recidivism-reduction programs.
A wide range of organizations on the left and the right support comprehensive criminal justice reform efforts ranging from Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM) to the Texas Public Policy Foundation.
The focus of last Wednesday’s hearing was on how a combination of front-end and back-end reforms would result in fairer sentencing practices and more effective rehabilitation while still enhancing public safety.
John Malcolm, Director of the Edwin Meese III Center for Legal and Judicial Studies at the Heritage Foundation, noted that federal prison cells are scarce resources that should be reserved for those who pose the greatest threats to public safety.
“Smart-on-crime” reforms that ensure that prisons are not clogged with nonviolent offenders will ensure that valuable prison real estate is not wasted on nonviolent offenders serving excessively lengthy sentences.
Malcolm also stressed that back-end reforms could help break the revolving-door cycle that currently exists by addressing issues such as a lack of education or job skills, substance abuse problems and psychiatric problems, all of which make it more likely that an inmate will recidivate once released from custody.
Another panelist, Kevin Ring of Families Against Mandatory Minimums, provided firsthand insight into the deficiencies of the federal prison system.
During his own stint as a federal inmate, he noticed that rehabilitative programs were sparse and ineffective.
Cognitive behavioral therapy was virtually nonexistent, and prisoners had few opportunities to take on responsibilities and develop professional skills.
Ring also criticized mandatory minimum sentencing as a one-size-fits-all policy that ignores individual circumstances unique to each convict.
Marc Levin of the Texas Public Policy Foundation testified that experience with criminal justice reform at the state level supports federal overhaul efforts.
According to Levin, in those states that have given judges more discretion when sentencing certain low-level nonviolent offenders, crime rates have actually declined.
Brett Tolman, co-chair of the White Collar Criminal Defense and Corporate Compliance Group, echoed the prevailing sentiment that the most efficient use of scarce prison resources would be to prepare low-risk prisoners for re-entry into society, consequently reducing recidivism rates.
He, along with other panelists and lawmakers, noted that the Bureau of Prisons consumes nearly one third of the Department of Justice’s overall budget, which cuts back on other Department of Justice efforts to fight crime and enhance public safety.
Last month, Heritage noted that now is the time for civil asset forfeiture reform.
This week’s hearings on Capitol Hill showed that the time is ripe for even broader changes to the nation’s justice system.
Although other policy changes, such as mens rea reform (requiring that a person know he is committing a crime to be found guilty), are needed, liberal and conservative lawmakers and panelists alike voiced strong support for mandatory minimum sentencing reform and recidivism risk-reduction efforts.
Ranking member Cummings put it best: “the stars are aligned.”