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April 01, 2011

National Commission Would Examine All Elements of Criminal Justice System

Sen. Jim Webb (D-Va.) has reintroduced legislation to establish an independent National Criminal Justice Commission to undertake the first comprehensive examination of the U.S. criminal justice system in more than 45 years.

“The need for a comprehensive review is clear,” ABA Governmental Affairs Director Thomas M. Susman wrote in a March 16 letter to Webb commending him for his leadership on the issue. According to the letter, “at every stage of the criminal justice process – from the events preceding arrest to the challenges facing those reentering the community after incarceration – serious problems undermine basic tents of fairness and equity, as well as the public’s expectations for safety.” The result is an “overburdened, expensive and often ineffective criminal justice system,” Susman concluded.

The legislation, first introduced by Webb in 2009, cleared the Senate Judiciary Committee and passed the House during the 111th Congress, but never came to a vote in the Senate despite strong bipartisan support.

The commission created by the bill, introduced this year as S. 609, would examine all areas of the criminal justice system, including federal, state, local and tribal governments’ criminal justice costs, practices and policies. After conducting the review, the commission would make recommendations designed to prevent, deter, and reduce crime and violence, improve cost-effectiveness, and ensure the interests of justice.

“America has the highest documented rate of incarceration in the world, yet 60 percent of Americans feel less safe in their own neighborhoods than they did a year ago,” Webb said as he introduced the bill. “We spend a staggering $68 billion every year just to keep people locked up, and we lose billions more in lost productivity due to the lack of proper re-entry programs.”

In his letter to Webb, Susman explained that the ABA has long called for greater reliance on alternatives to incarceration and also for more careful scrutiny and reform of current practices that have resulted in the unchecked growth of federal criminal law and the attendant expansion of the federal criminal justice system.

He noted that experts now estimate that there are more than 4,500 separate federal criminal justice statutes scattered throughout the federal code without any coherent organization. Decades of expansion of federal crime has resulted in overcriminalization of behavior that often lacks criminal intent and would be managed better by civil fines or other non-criminal sanctions.

Susman said that discussion of the criminal justice system must include state, local, and federal law enforcement officers, prosecutors, defense attorneys, judges, corrections officials, treatment providers, victims, probation and parole officers, academics, victim advocacy groups, other public interest organizations, ex-offenders, and ordinary citizens – all of whom have a tremendous stake in the justice system.

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