Crime policy remains a highly partisan issue in the halls of Congress. This month, the Senate failed to include a national criminal justice study commission in a federal appropriations bill when Republicans almost unanimously opposed it. The proposed commission got 57 votes, so it’s not dead, and the arguments advanced by both sides are worth examining.
On its face, the proposal by Sen. Jim Webb (D-VA) seems innocuous. A group of experts chosen by President Barack Obama and congressional leaders would study national criminal justice problems for $5 million, a pittance in Washington, D.C., terms.
It would be the first such effort since a similar panel during Lyndon Johnson’s presidency in the 1960s recommended a wide variety of reforms and had a powerful impact on criminal-justice thinking for years.
Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee agreed to the idea last year but it never reached the Senate floor. When Webb brought it up again in mid-October of this year, Republican leaders, for reasons so far unexplained, changed their minds. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas called it an “overreach of gigantic proportions” and Sen. John McCain of Arizona said it would violate state’s rights.
Webb’s rejoinder: “There is no states rights issue in convening the best minds in America to give you advice and observations about the overall criminal justice system.”
The Republican argument is puzzling because the GOP has long supported federal justice measures that oblige states to adopt ideas approved in Washington to get federal funds, such as the 1990s crime law that required tough criminal sentences to make states eligible for U.S. prison-building aid, and the current so-called Adam Walsh law that forces states to create sex-offender registries or forgo some federal funds.
Cries of “state’s rights” didn’t prevent these bills from passing.
It may be that this is a case where appearances are more significant than reality. Although many law enforcement groups such as the International Association of Chiefs of Police favor the Webb proposal, the most visible lobbying before the recent vote was done by organizations whose primary goal is reducing the 2.3-million U.S. prison population. While there is no guarantee that a blue-ribbon commission would focus on that, it’s plausible to believe that many Republicans don’t want to go on record favoring that result and somehow be accused of being “soft on crime.”