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July 01, 2015

Comprehensive crime bill draws from task force testimony

A bipartisan comprehensive criminal justice bill introduced last month in the House incorporates recommendations made during hearings before the Over-Criminalization Task Force of the House Judiciary Committee, which examined the entire federal criminal justice system during the last Congress.

“We cannot allow our criminal justice system to remain on its current trajectory,” said Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.), who chaired the task force with bill cosponsor Rep. Robert C. “Bobby” Scott (D-Va.).

Sensenbrenner pointed out that the states have been outperforming Congress on criminal justice reform for years, and introduction of H.R. 2944, the Safe, Accountable, Fair and Effective (SAFE) Justice Act, is “a major step forward in implementing effective, meaningful reform on the federal level that will enact fairness in sentencing, reduce the taxpayer burden, and ensure the increased safety and prosperity of communities across the country.”

Scott, who served as the task force’s ranking member, agreed, noting that the legislation “utilizes an evidence-based approach to reduce over-criminalization and over-incarceration and reinvest the savings into community-based prevention and early intervention programs to improve public safety.”

In the past 10 years, imprisonment in the states has dropped by four percent while the federal prison population has risen by 15 percent. The bill includes a wide array of provisions to improve federal sentencing, the corrections system and the federal supervision system. Provisions include focusing mandatory minimum sentences on leaders and supervisors of drug trafficking organizations and providing judges with more discretion in sentencing lower-level offenders, creating release valves for lower risk geriatric and terminally ill offenders, encouraging greater use of probation and problem-solving courts for appropriate offenders, and expanding recidivism prevention programs. The bill also calls for greater attention to the fiscal impact of future sentencing and corrections proposals and increased funding for community-based policing and public safety initiatives.

The ABA has been in the forefront of efforts to evaluate and improve federal criminal laws for many years, and William N. Shepherd, 2012-1013 chair of the ABA Criminal Justice Section, and Mathias H. Heck Jr., who succeeded Shepherd as section chair. were among those testifying before the Over-Criminalization Task Force.

The association, which opposes mandatory minimums, is urging that strong sentencing reform be part of any criminal justice reform legislation. In addition, the ABA is part of a working group of lawyers and advocates who formed Clemency Project 2014 at the request of the Justice Department to provide pro bono assistance to federal inmates serving sentences for non-violent crimes who would likely have received shorter sentences if they had been sentenced today.

President Obama focused attention on criminal justice reform this month when, during a July 14 speech to the NAACP, he called for action on bipartisan legislation to address a criminal justice system that he said “remains particularly skewed by race and by wealth, a source of inequity that has ripple effects on families and on communities and ultimately on our nation....”

The president granted clemency to 46 non-violent drug offenders who would already have served their time and returned to society if they has been convicted under current law, and he became the first sitting president to visit a federal correctional facility when he toured the El Reno prison in Oklahoma on July 16.

On Capitol Hill, Speaker of the House John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) said during a July 16 press briefing that he would like to see the SAFE Justice Act brought to the House floor.

H.R. 2944 has been referred to the House Judiciary Committee. In the Senate, key members of the Senate Judiciary Committee continue negotiations to develop their own comprehensive criminal justice package that they hope will garner bipartisan support. 

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