Is Congress Ready to Back a New Crime Commission?


Growing Congressional interest in justice reform has improved the prospects for creation of a National Criminal Justice Commission that can spearhead a “top to bottom review” of the justice system, says Sen. Gary Peters (D-MI).

Peters told the American Society of Criminology yesterday that the time was “long overdue” for a national effort similar in scope to the Commission on Law Enforcement and Administration of Justice created by President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1965.

At a panel marking the 50th anniversary of the LBJ initiative, Peters was joined by staff members of the original commission for a discussion of the challenges and prospects of a new national effort to muster support for innovation in criminal justice.

Criminologist Alfred Blumstein of Carnegie Mellon University said a new panel could tackle a number of major national issues, including high incarceration rates and overcriminalization.

But he also noted that a commission with members named by the president and Congressional leaders, as proposed by the current bill to establish the body, could lead to political polarization.

Peters is a leading sponsor of the bill, which has has been endorsed by organizations of police and prosecutors, and has 20 co-sponsors in the Senate.

A similar plan by former Sen. Jim Webb (D-VA) fell short because he failed to win much Republican support. But this time around, Peters has the backing of Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX), the deputy majority leader, and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), a conservative Judiciary Committee member.

Peters, who formerly represented Detroit as a member of the House and is familiar with that city’s longstanding crime problems, listed some of the issues that a new commission could address, such as grand juries that are reluctant to charge police officers who shoot citizens, the challenges of former prisoners trying to re-enter society, and flawed forensic science procedures that do not provide accurate evidence in criminal cases.

Among ideas popularized by the 1965 commission was the 911 phone system to centralize service calls to police departments.

Earlier this year, a task force on 21st century law enforcement named by President Obama called for a broader presidential task force on the entire criminal justice system. The Peters-Cornyn-Graham bill would go further, creating a 14-member panel that would issue a report within 18 months.

In a discussion of the bill, Washington lawyer Sheldon Krantz, another original staff member of the LBJ panel, said the 1960s panel worked well partly because its voting members were not entrenched criminal justice experts, and they relied on a professional staff that lacked “political infighting.”

Laurie Robinson of George Mason University, former assistant U.S. Attorney General for justice programs, said a new commission could pose and answer basic questions of “what do we want for the nation’s criminal justice system?”

She noted that public opinion on such issues as policing, drugs, and overcriminalization has changed in the past few years. In the national discussion that followed the Ferguson police killing of Michael Brown last year, “the ground is shifting, the terrain is changing,” she said.

In another discussion at the criminology society, some experts warned that a national consensus is yet to be reached on reducing the United States’ world-leading incarceration levels of more than 2.3 million people behind bars.

Although much has been made of a left-right agreement on many issues, criminologist Michael Tonry of the University of Minnesota pointed out that beyond the fact that both sides support the reduction of some mandatory prison sentences, the right tends to focus on economic and crime victim issues and helping non-violent offenders, while the left worries more about racial disparity.

Tonry noted that the Obama vow to grant clemency to more federal prisoners was limited to a relatively small group of non-violent first offenders who had served more than 10 years.

Another speaker, criminologist James Austin, urged policy makers to take a close look at a few places that had successfully ended mass incarceration, such as New York City and San Francisco.

Austin blamed some of the resistance to prison reforms in other jurisdictions to an exaggerated public view of the nation’s crime problem. Although serious crime has increased in some big cities this year, only about 3 percent of the population reports being victimized in any given year, That means that most Americans are “not at risk of victimization on a day-to-day basis,” he said.

Some reform advocates “really don’t believe their own rhetoric,” Austin asserted. He said some would-be reformers refuse to support the release of repeat-offender inmates or those who committed a violent crime. That leaves “nothing left on the table” in terms of inmates to release.

A third speaker, probation and parole expert Ed Rhine of the University of Minnesota, said that the U.S. also faces a mass supervision challenge, with many more people on probation and parole than are in prisons and jails.

Rhine said some policymakers are reluctant to reduce the population under correctional control because it is a “source of revenue for the criminal justice system,” as many offenders are required to pay for their own monitoring by GPS devices.

The criminology society is holding its annual convention in Washington, D.C., through Saturday

Ted Gest is President of Criminal Justice Journalists and Washington Bureau Chief of The Crime Report. He welcomes readers’ comments.

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