A task force led by current and former justice officials has proposed a 15-point platform to improve the federal criminal justice system.
The group, assembled by Council on Criminal Justice, a national think tank, is seeking for independent oversight of the federal prison system, spending more money on reducing “victimization and trauma” in cities, and formally recognizing states that have legalized marijuana.
Those were among 15 recommendations of a panel chaired by former Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal, who is widely recognized for implementing criminal justice reforms in his state.
The panel also proposed eliminating mandatory minimum sentences, allowing inmates serving long sentences to request “second looks” by judges, instituting, and sealing many criminal records to help ex-prisoners re-enter society successfully.
Deal, a former Republican congressman, called the proposals “top priorities for realistic reforms at the federal level.”
Another task force member, former Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter, told a webinar conference Tuesday that the COVID-19 pandemic had “exposed more fully than ever the deficiencies in our nation’s criminal justice system, and how those deficiencies endanger people, communities, and public safety.”
The criminal justice council created the 14-member task force nearly a year ago to build on the 2018 federal First Step Act, which is aimed at improving federal inmate re-entry programs and reducing some sentences.
The task force argued that its proposals “not only target critical needs, but also are politically viable and hold the potential to make the greatest improvements in safety and the administration of justice.”
In its call to abolish mandatory minimum prison terms, the task force said they had helped fill prisons “not just with major traffickers but also with thousands of lower-level players in the drug distribution chain, a disproportionate number of whom are minorities.”
The group noted that the First Step Act made an estimated 2,000 more people each year eligible for exemption from mandatory sentences and reduced the length of some drug sentences by five years.
In its proposal to strengthen the review of the federal prison system, which has come under fire for its handling of the COVID-19 crisis in correctional institutions, the task force said Congress should establish “an independent performance, oversight, and accountability board” to review all federal Bureau of Prisons “policies, procedures, practices, and complaints.”
The task force cited a congressional investigation of the bureau’s disciplinary process issued last year that found lower-ranking employees and inmates “subject to rampant abuse and harassment, and that misconduct was ‘ignored or covered up on a regular basis.’ ”
On the subject of urban violence, the task force acknowledged that crime rates had fallen in the U.S. in recent decades, but said that more than 100,000 murders had occurred since the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, many of whom were poor members of minority groups
The task force said studies have shown that that “a single murder costs the nation at least $10 million in criminal justice and medical costs, lost wages and earnings, damaged and devalued property, and diminished quality of life.”
It called for a new federal grant program attacking urban violence, “tied to the data-driven, evidence-informed strategies that are proven to reduce violence, a balanced mix of enforcement and non-enforcement approaches.”
Among other recommendations, the task force urged President Donald Trump and the Senate to “reinvigorate” the U.S. Sentencing Commission, which in recent years has lacked a full complement of members, to advise the federal government on effective sentencing policies and practices.
The task force started its work well before the COVID-19 pandemic.
The report added: “Even before the novel coronavirus surfaced, the calls for criminal justice reform in our country were urgent and widespread. Now that chorus has grown far louder. Americans from across the ideological spectrum are pushing for a reevaluation of priorities, and for incarceration alternatives for people who pose no real threat to public safety.”
Members of the task force, besides Deal and Nutter, are Eddie Bocanegra of the Chicago-based violence prevention program READI Chicago; Steve Chanenson of Villanova University law school and editor of the Federal Sentencing Reporter; Mark Holden of Koch Industries; Nancy La Vigne of the Urban Institute; Janelle Melohn, president of the National Association of Victims of Crime Act (VOCA) Assistance Administrators; and John Tilley, former secretary of the Kentucky Justice and Public Safety Cabinet.
Other members are Charles Ramsey, former police chief in Washington, D.C. and Philadelphia; David Safavian of the American Conservative Union; Christina Swarns of New York City’s Office of the Appellate Defender; Donald Stern, former U.S. Attorney in Massachusetts; Kima Taylor, former director of the Open Society Foundations Addiction Programs; and Sally Yates, former Deputy U.S. Attorney General.