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Criminal Justice System May Get Much Needed Overhaul

Congress is currently considering legislation to create a blue-ribbon commission that would study the problems of the state and federal criminal justice systems.
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    May 20, 2010 /24-7PressRelease/ -- Our criminal justice system obeys the law of unintended consequences. Eventually, all of our policy decisions have consequences, and some of those come back to haunt us. We can see this in the aftermath of the crackdown on crime in this country.

Decades of laws imposing ever-increasing penalties and longer prison sentences have left us with the largest prison population in the world, currently at 2.38 million. At least one-quarter of these inmates are serving time for minor, non-violent crimes, the majority of which are low-level drug offenses.

This large prison population has strained state budgets, particularly now as the country faces the worst economic climate in years. In fact, some estimates put state spending on incarceration at one dollar out of every 15 in their tightening budgets.

Commission Will Investigate Criminal Justice System and Propose Reforms

To address the problem of the growing, unsustainable prison population, Senator Jim Webb (D-VA) introduced S.714, the "National Criminal Justice Committee Act of 2009" last year. The bill was recently approved by the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee. Representative William Delahunt (D-MA) has introduced a similar bill this year in the House of Representatives, H.R.5143.

The Act proposes the creation of a blue-ribbon commission to study the problems with the state and federal criminal justice systems, from sentencing disparities in drug cases to the effect of foreign-based gangs on U.S. crime rates and every issue in-between. If the bill passes, the commission will be given 18 months to complete a far-reaching study and propose solutions to the problems facing America's criminal justice system.

Among other things, the commission would be charged with investigating:
- Why the U.S. has the highest incarceration rate in the world and how other industrialized countries with similar legal systems, namely European countries, sentence offenders
- The use of pre-employment training programs and other re-entry programs to help former offenders adjust to life after prison and become productive members of society
- The impact of gang-related activities on U.S. crime rates, especially foreign-based gangs like the Mexican drug cartels
- The incidence of mental illness in the prison population and ways to better identify and treat these illnesses
- The historical and possible future role the military can play in crime prevention efforts at the federal, state and local levels

The commission also would investigate current sentencing policies, particularly those concerning drug offenses. According to the rationale of S. 714, tougher laws and higher incarceration rates of drug offenders have not had the desired effect; supply and demand for illegal drugs remains high. With over half a million people serving time in a state or federal facility for a drug-related crime, Congress seeks an alternative to the current system. But why does Congress need a National Criminal Justice Commission to study and debate the issue and its solutions?

A Commission Is a Sign of Congressional Timidity and Indolence

When Congress creates a commission, it often seeks to foist a tough political problem on an unaccountable, unelected, "bipartisan, blue ribbon" committee. Congress is our national policy debate and deliberation body. Congress can, and should, hold hearings on the injustices and inefficiencies of our criminal justice system. Rather than pontificating to the cameras, our federal legislators ought to engage the country's best thinkers on criminal justice policy in debate and conversation, to forge the best policy in the crucible of deliberation. The floor of Congress is likewise meant to be a foundry of thoughtful, intellectual exchange, rather than a platform for pointless polemics before the C-SPAN cameras.

As is too often the case, a commission is confirmation of the loss of political courage and public spirited intellectual contest in our Congress. Ultimately, not even the political cover of a commission can summon courageous or thoughtful action by our legislators. For example, the U.S. Sentencing Commission has, for the past fifteen years, made unimpeachable findings that changes should be made to equalize federal sentencing policies for powder cocaine and crack cocaine offenses. Their recommendations have been based on in-depth studies and scientific evidence that have proven there is no difference in the chemical make-up, addictiveness, or dangerousness of cocaine in rock or powdered form. And yet, Congress has done nothing to act on the Sentencing Commission's recommendations.

So this begs the question: Why would this commission be any more effective or successful in bringing much-needed reform to the U.S. criminal justice system?


One out of every 31 American adults is either in prison, on probation, or parole. That is more than 7 million of our fellow citizens. Incarceration was once intended to be a punishment for the most dangerous, violent offenders who had caused serious harm to others. By sending them to prison, we said that the most severe crimes must trigger the most severe penalties, and we hoped thereby to deter them, and like-minded individuals, from committing heinous crimes in the future.

Our laws, however, have been steadily increasing the scope of offenses that require imprisonment, pushing the limits of our criminal justice system too far. Laws that over-punish diminish respect for the law, and thus paradoxically promote lawlessness. Now, our prisons house hundreds of thousands of people who committed non-violent crimes who would be better served by alternative forms of punishment that permit them to work and be productive, rather than be tax burdens on their fellow citizens.

Whether or not the National Criminal Justice Committee ultimately comes into being, one thing is certain: reform of the U.S. criminal justice system is long overdue, and it will only happen if our Congress itself musters the courage and wisdom to act.

Article provided by Patrick J. McLain
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