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July 9, 2015

ACLU and Koch reps make pitch for SAFE Act and federal sentencing reforms

This notable new Politico commentary advocating for federal criminal justice reform is authored by Anthony Romero, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union, and Mark Holden, general counsel of Koch Industries. The piece is headlined "A New Beginning for Criminal Justice Reform," and here are excerpts:

The U.S. criminal justice system is in a state of crisis — and Congress is finally moving to address it. On June 25, Reps. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.) and Bobby Scott (D-Va.) introduced the bipartisan Safe, Accountable, Fair and Effective Justice Act. Known as the SAFE Justice Act, the legislation is an important step in addressing America’s ballooning, costly and ultimately unjust federal sentencing and corrections system, which needlessly throws away lives and decimates entire communities.

The criminal justice system’s problems are evident all around us.  Over the past three decades, Congress has steadily increased the size and scope of the federal criminal code, ensnaring people who have no business being behind bars, without a corresponding benefit to public safety.  From 1980 to 2013, the federal criminal code increased from 3,000 crimes to approximately 5,000 crimes.  Over the same period, our federal prison population skyrocketed from 24,000 to 215,000 — a 795 percent overall increase — while federal spending on prisons also soared from $970 million to more than $6.7 billion — a 595 percent increase.

While we have a good handle on how much taxpayers’ money we’ve wasted on over-criminalization and mass incarceration, the cost in human lives is incalculable.  Almost every single federal prisoner serving life without parole for nonviolent offenses has one thing in common: a drug offense that resulted in a de facto death sentence. This excessive reliance on punitive sentencing destroys individual lives, families and communities. It is not clear it makes communities any safer.  In addition, it is fiscally irresponsible and morally repugnant.

This points to a simple conclusion: The criminal justice system must be reformed. It must be dramatically altered to maximize public safety, minimize its cost to taxpayers and ensure that justice is served — for the victims of crimes, the individuals who commit them and for society at large....

The SAFE Justice Act would incorporate lessons learned in [reform] states and apply many of them at the federal level. It seeks to address several specific issues with the current criminal justice system. Four areas of reform are particularly promising: First, it begins the process of reversing over-criminalization and the over-federalization of the criminal code.  The act forces the federal government to disclose the creation of new criminal offenses — a common-sense action that would clarify just how large the criminal code is and how fast it has grown.  It also empowers the victims of federal over-criminalization to seek redress via the Office of the Inspector General.  It also contains various reforms to protect against wrongful conviction, reduce pre-trial detentions, and eliminate federal criminal penalties in state jurisdictions, including penalties for actions such as drug possession.

Second, it would reform sentencing.  Today, mandatory minimums force too many people to plea to lengthy prison sentences — punishments that may not fit the crime.  The act seeks to undo this broken system by encouraging judges to offer probation to low-level offenders, while increasing pre-judgment probation.  It also would restrict mandatory minimums to specific categories of people — such as high-level members of drug-trafficking organizations rather than street dealers — as originally intended by Congress.

Third, it would reduce recidivism. Too often, the criminal justice system’s flaws turn federal prisons into revolving doors for repeat offenders.  The legislation proposes to address this problem with a number of reforms, including shorter sentences for people who participate in specific educational and vocational programs.  These reforms can ensure that people who leave federal prison are better equipped to rejoin their communities and contribute to society.

Fourth, it would increase transparency.  The bill would require that federal agencies issue regular reports on recidivism rates, prison populations and other key statistics. It also would require that cost analyses be presented to judges prior to sentencing to help them make prudent decisions.

This is only a partial list of the reforms proposed in the SAFE Justice Act. They are a good start — but they are not enough to reverse the damage, financially and in terms of human lives, caused by decades of misguided policies.  In particular, members of Congress from both parties should continue to devote particular attention to ensuring that criminal laws penalize only the people who intend to commit crimes, an important distinction that many new federal criminal laws miss.  More broadly, they must identify and pass targeted policies that are smarter on crime, rather than just tougher.

Prior related post:

July 9, 2015 at 12:15 PM | Permalink

Comments

"...ensure that people who leave federal prison are better equipped to rejoin their communities and contribute to society."

Say a prisoner has earned a PhD, and is a candidate for canonization for his miraculous achievements in prison.

Once out, how is he supposed to get a job, or even rent an apartment? The lawyer will pounce on any employer or landlord who accepts him with a negligence claim.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Jul 9, 2015 10:51:27 PM

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