An ineffective Congress isn’t dimming the enthusiasm of criminal justice reformers this year.
First, a bipartisan group of senators vowed to press forward with a major sentencing reform that stalled amid last year’s election campaigns.
Now, a Democrat-Republican duo in the House are reviving a version of a justice reform plan that also failed to pass in the last Congress.
Reps. Bobby Scott (D-VA) and Jason Lewis (R-MN) unveiled their “Safe, Accountable, Fair, and Effective Justice Act, known as SAFE, on Thursday with a panel discussion that spanned the ideological spectrum.
Scott is a 13-term House member and former chairman of the House subcommittee on crime who has long pursued criminal justice issues. Lewis is a freshman from Minnesota who in his campaign backed the version of SAFE introduced in the last Congress by Scott and James Sensenbrenner (R-WI), current chairman of the House crime panel.
SAFE is broader than Senate justice bills because it not only would reduce mandatory minimum sentences but also would curtail “overcriminalization,” a favorite target of conservatives who contend that there are too many “regulatory criminal offenses” that ensnare well-meaning citizens in technical violations of federal rules.
There are 4,500 federal laws that carry criminal penalties, Lewis said, observing that, “We don’t have to federalize every aspect of criminal law.”
Scott and Lewis assembled a panel of backers that included representatives of two well-known conservative groups, the NAACP, Families Against Mandatory Minimums, the Pew Charitable Trusts’ Public Safety Performance Project, and a former federal inmate-turned-law professor.
Leading off the discussion was David Safavian of the American Conservative Union, who asserted that criminal justice reform is a “rare issue that unites the right and the left.”
Noting that federal inmates have a 40 percent recidivism rate, Safavian observed tthat “only a federal program can have a 40 percent failure rate and go on without change.”
At the annual gathering of the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) this year, he said, 92 percent of participants agreed on the need to fix the criminal justice system, and the major issues identified by those surveyed that should be addressed are mental health and addiction.
He was followed by Jake Horowitz of Pew, which has worked in about three dozen states on reforms as part of the “justice reinvestment” initiative. Horowitz mentioned a repeated theme at the gathering: that state governments have outpaced federal officials on basing criminal justice policies on evidence of what works to prevent crime.
Horowitz chose as an example South Carolina, where the prison population has dropped 14 percent since a package of sentencing and corrections reforms was enacted in 2010. The changes reduced penalties for minor drug and property offenses, expanded inmate release options, strengthened community supervision, and increased.
Pew says that the state has been able to close six prisons and save $491 million, while the crime rate continues to fall.
The federal government must face up to the fact that more than half its prisoners are convicted of drug crimes, a large proportion of them couriers or “mules” and not major drug kingpins, Horowitz said.
Kevin Ring of Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM) stressed that current federal sentencing statutes are “evidence-free laws…there is no basis for them.” Ring, who served in prison himself for a white-collar offense, said that Congress in the 1980s and 1990s wrote legislation without gauging its potential effectiveness, racheting up prison tersms for various offenses.
Prison actually “should be the last resort” for many offenses, he asserted.
Hilary Shelton of the NAACP discussed “blatant racial disparities” in incarceration, saying that African Americans are imprisoned far in excess of their proportion of the U.S. population. The Prison Policy Initiative reports that blacks are 13 percent of the nation’s population but 40 percent of its prison inmates.
Shon Hopwood became a “jailhouse lawyer” serving a prison term in Nebraska for bank robbery and now is a faculty member at Georgetown University in the capital.
At Thursday’s discussion, he argued that federal prison terms are too long, partly because prosecutors are allowed to “stack” charges that add to penalties under federal firearms laws.
FAMM says that federal law provides for mandatory minimum sentences of five, seven, ten and 30 years for some gun crimes, and the sentences must be served consecutively.
The final speaker was Ronald Lampard of the American Legislative Exchange Council, which represents state legislators and believes in “limited government.” Lampard, a former prosecutor, returned to the issue of the expansion of federal criminal regulatory laws, contending that many were unnecessarily harsh.
Despite the impressive support for the SAFE bill from across the spectrum, its chances for passage any time soon are limited, given that Congress has been unable to agree on much substantive legislation and is headed for a divisive debate on tax reform.
Still, House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) and Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-VA) have repeatedly said that criminal justice is an issue they believe deserves to be high on the Capitol priority list.
A decisive question may be the position of the Trump administration. President Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions regularly call for “get tough” policies and Sessions has been skeptical of reducing mandatory minimum sentences.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-IA) says that Sessions and others in the administration, presumably including Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner, whose father served a prison term and who has been tasked by the president with working on criminal justice, have agreed to work with lawmakers on a compromise plan.
Ted Gest is president of Criminal Justice Journalists and Washington bureau chief of The Crime Report. Readers’ comments are welcome.