Bipartisan Group in Congress Revives Push for National Criminal Justice Commission

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Photo by Mike Mozart via Flickr

A bipartisan group of more than 20 U.S. senators is making another attempt to establish the first national commission in 50 years to study the criminal justice system and make recommendations on improving it.

Smaller groups of senators have pursued the idea in recent years, but it has failed to amass enough support to pass.

One of the lead sponsors, Sen. Gary Peters (D-MI), said, “Our criminal justice system is built on the pillars of fairness and equality, but too many Americans see growing challenges in our justice system ranging from overburdened courts and unsustainable incarceration costs to strained relationships between law enforcement and the communities they serve.”

Joined by Sens. John Cornyn (R-TX) and Lindsey Graham (R-SC) as primary sponsors, the bill would establish a 14-member, bipartisan National Criminal Justice Commission that would conduct an 18-month, comprehensive review of the national criminal justice system. It would then issue recommendations for “changes in oversight, policies, practices, and laws to reduce crime, increase public safety and promote confidence in the criminal justice system.”

The panel would be composed of appointees of President Trump and congressional leaders of both parties, including experts on law enforcement, criminal justice, victims’ rights, civil liberties, and social services.

The last comprehensive review of criminal justice was conducted a half-century ago, when President Lyndon Johnson created the Commission on Law Enforcement and Administration of Justice. The 19-member panel was headed by Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach.

Its final report in 1967 made more than 200 recommendations that helped shape the current criminal justice system, including the creation of the 911 crime reporting system, establishment of research agencies like the Bureau of Justice Statistics, and improved training and professionalization for law enforcement.

After the fatal police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., in 2014, President Obama named a task force on 21st-century policing that in turn urged a national criminal justice study similar to the one now being proposed. Obama did not act on the proposal.

Under an order from President Trump, Attorney General Jeff Sessions recently set up a Task Force on Crime Reduction and Public Safety, but that panel is being run by heads of federal law enforcement agencies and does not include officials and advocates outside the Justice Department.

The senators’ proposal reflects a longstanding priority of the International Association of Chiefs of Police, and is also backed by the Fraternal Order of Police, which supported Trump’s election.

Officials of a range of other organizations immediately backed the idea, including the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights,  the NAACP, the National Urban League, National Sheriffs’ Association, International CURE (Citizens United for the Rehabilitation of Errants), and the Major County Sheriffs of America.

It has already attracted support from an ideological mix of senators, ranging from Republicans Marco Rubio of Florida and Orrin Hatch of Utah on the right to Democrats Bill Nelson of Florida, Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, and Kamala Harris of California on the left.

Sponsors had hoped last year to make the commission a part of a sentencing reform plan that was approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee but never made it to the Senate floor among election-year opposition from several members.

The prospect of a new national criminal justice commission was discussed by members of the American Society of Criminology at its annual convention last November in New Orleans. See this coverage in The Crime Report.

Ted Gest is President of Criminal Justice Journalists and Washington bureau chief of The Crime Report. Readers’ comments are welcome.


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