Will Republicans Deep-Six National Criminal Justice Reform?


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.”

Besides the state’s rights argument, which doesn’t seem to apply to an advisory commission, opponents raised several other issues: that the commission might be skewed because of the way it would be appointed, that it would be hard to do a national study in the specified 18 months, and its $5 million initial cost might take away from other Justice Department programs.
The membership issue could be fixed if it’s a real problem, and 18 months should be enough time, with all of the knowledge accumulated since the Johnson commission.
The money issue is a real one, but it could be solved in a federal department that spends nearly $27 billion each year. It is not true, as one opponent charged, that funds would have to be taken from the popular National Center for Missing and Exploited Children to pay for the Webb commission.
This doesn’t mean that a criminal justice commission would be a guaranteed winner. Depending on who is named to it, like lots of other big projects in Washington these days, there is always the potential for a descent into partisan or ideological gridlock.
The reason the commission is stalled now is that the Senate agreed that amendments to the appropriations bill Webb wanted to amend needed a filibuster-proof 60-vote majority to be approved.
Now the question is whether Webb can get his idea considered on a crowded calendar of bills that require only a majority, and whether the House, which approved it almost unanimously under Democratic control, would go along again in Republican hands.
That may require a somewhat more rational debate. As the Norfolk Times in Webb’s home state editorialized on this month’s Senate vote, “Partisan shenanigans are epidemic on Capitol Hill, but the [Republican] motivation here defies logic.”
Ted Gest is president of Criminal Justice Journalists and a contributing editor to The Crime Report. He welcomes comments from readers.

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