The retirement of U.S. Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.) next year could have a major impact on criminal justice policy, say Washington insiders.
Wolf, 74, has served in Congress for 34 years.
Announcing this week that he will not run for re-election in 2014, the 17-term Congressman said, “As a follower of Jesus, I am called to work for justice and reconciliation, and to be an advocate for those who cannot speak for themselves. I plan to focus my future work on human rights and religious freedom.”
Wolf is influential in the justice field because he chairs the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, and Science, which in conjunction with a parallel committee in the Senate essentially controls the Justice Department budget.
As a moderate Republican, Wolf is something of a rarity on Capitol Hill in his party because he has shown a strong interest in prison issues.
He has been a strong advocate of the Second Chance Act, which provides funds for prisoner re-entry programs nationwide, as well as the Prison Rape Elimination Act, which has led to federal standards for prisons at all levels to prevent sexual abuse in correctional institutions.
It was not immediately clear who might succeed Wolf as committee chairman, but few other Republicans in Congress have expressed intense interest in prisons.
Currently, Wolf is seeking funding for a commission that would study the growth of the federal prison system and what might be done to limit the inmate population.
As reported in The Crime Report last May, Wolf said he would work with ranking committee member Chaka Fattah (D-PA) on the plan for a task force, which is named for longtime prison reformer and former White House aide Chuck Colson. (The formal name of the nine-person panel would be the Charles Colson Task Force on Federal Corrections.)
Wolf has expressed outrage that federal inmates are not provided more opportunities to gain work experience. He believes the Bureau of Prisons is incarcerating too many people, including ill older inmates who no longer pose a threat to society.
Laurie Robinson, former Assistant Attorney General for Justice Programs, praised Wolf for providing backing for key programs.
“Chairman Wolf’s passionate support in areas like justice reinvestment, the Second Chance Act, and the Office of Justice Programs’ “what works” clearinghouse made them a reality,” Robinson said. “He is one Member of Congress who had an impact — and will very much be missed.” She added, “Without Frank Wolf, we could never have advanced my agency’s science agenda. He strongly backed a 2 percent set-aside across our budget for research and funding for practitioner-researcher partnerships.”
(The “what works” unit provides information to anticrime programs around the U.S. on techniques that are supported by scientific evidence.)
Similar sentiments were expressed by Michael Thompson, director of the Council of State Governments Justice Center.
“While many elected officials in local, state and federal government were resigned to prisons being a place where people who committed crime were warehoused, Chairman Wolf, one of the most influential people in Congress, insisted that government, partnering with community based organizations, must do everything possible to make sure people returned to the community did not reoffend,” Thompson told The Crime Report.
He added, “At countless hearings, meetings, and visits to prisons, jails, and churches, he pushed people to deliver results. And he backed that talk with money, which funded new pilots, expanded fledgling projects, and helped all of us learn what works and what doesn’t. These tireless efforts rarely received much media coverage, but anyone whose career is focused on corrections issues knows that what Chairman Wolf has done has truly transformed the field.”
Among other issues, Wolf has closely followed the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS), particularly after the 2007 student massacre at Virginia Tech. Long before the issue became a national focus after last year’s elementary school shooting in Newtown Ct., Wolf was aware that relatively few mental health records are filed in NICS and he sought more funding for the system.
On one key prison issue, Wolf has clashed with Attorney General Eric Holder.
Last year, the Obama administration sought to “reprogram” $165 million in federal funds to purchase the Thomson Correctional Center in Thomson, Ill., from the state of Illinois to house Guantanamo Bay detainees. Rejecting the proposal, Wolf wrote Holder that the funding request by Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Il.), “not only was never included in any bill voted upon by the Congress, but Congress has specifically denied and rescinded funding for this acquisition.”
Although the Attorney General later said that the Illinois prison would not be used for Guantanamo detainees, Wolf said he could not trust Holder to abide by that commitment.
He cited a 2009 effort by the Obama administration, strongly advocated by Holder, to secretly transfer and release two Guantanamo Bay detainees to Virginia.
Wolf also has devoted considerable effort to the gang problem, helping obtain funding for anti-gang task forces and pushing for creation of the FBI’s National Gang Intelligence Center to promote information sharing among law enforcement about gang violence.
Ted Gest is Washington Bureau Chief of The Crime Report, and president of Criminal Justice Journalists. He welcomes readers’ comments.