Congress doesn’t need a commission to tell lawmakers that it’s time for justice reform

There is significant transpartisan movement in the United States Senate to bring long overdue reforms to the justice system. A number of bills have already been introduced, including measures that would reform civil asset forfeiture statutes (FAIR Act), address mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent low-level offenders (Smarter Sentencing Act), and expungement or sealing the records of nonviolent offenders (REDEEM Act).

In April, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) held a hearing on federal civil asset forfeiture reform, during which he indicated that significant changes were needed to protect innocent property owners from overzealous law enforcement. And though he was initially vigorously resistant to sentencing reform, Grassley has felt pressure from colleagues in the upper chamber and in his home state to consider removing this brand of big government from of the courtroom. He recently announced that staff-level negotiations had begun on sentencing reform, though how far he is willing to go remains to be seen.

There are some, however, who want to stall the positive movement toward justice reform. In May, Politico reported that a well-intentioned bill, the National Criminal Justice Commission Act, could be used to "[s]low down the pace of reform with a congressional commission to study the issues and come back with recommendations." The bill was introduced in late April by Sens. Gary Peters (D-Mich.), Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), and John Cornyn (R-Texas).

Conservatives realize that commissions rarely produce positive results. Though he was writing about the commission that was a result of the Budget Control Act of 2011, RedState’s Erick Erickson, in July 2011, explained how action is difficult to come by even after serious problems are identified.

"[After] thirty years and seventeen debt commissions we have raised the national debt $13 trillion, seen taxes rise and fall and rise again, uncertainty come and go, and Washington remain unchanged," Erickson wrote. "And now some of you want to seek cover by having yet another commission — but this time it will be different!"

There is no need for another commission to analyze an issue and tell policymakers what they already know. The problems in the United States’ justice system have been identified by both government agencies and private organizations.

When it comes to the budgetary impact of incarceration, the Congressional Research Service, in an April 2014 report, noted that the cost of housing one prisoner has risen from $21,603 in FY 2000 to nearly $30,000 in FY 2013. Over this same period, annual appropriations to the Federal Bureau of Prisons nearly doubled, from $3.668 billion to almost $6.5 billion.

Since 1980, the federal prison population has grown by nearly 800 percent, from some 25,000 inmates to more than 219,000 in FY 2013. The boom in federal prison spending is directly related to this "historically unprecedented increase in the federal prison population." Federal prisons are now significantly overcrowded, putting both corrections officers and inmates at risk. "Overall," the report explained, "the federal prison system was 36% over its rated capacity in FY 2013, but high- and medium-security male facilities were operating at 52% and 45%, respectively, over rated capacity."

The Congressional Research Service presented lawmakers with some options, including increasing prison capacity, which would increase costs. But the report also noted many other options that would decrease costs and protect public safety, such as "modifying mandatory minimum penalties," allowing prisoners to earn more time credit for good behavior, and "repealing federal criminal statutes for some offenses."

The U.S. Sentencing Commission has been more forward about the need for federal mandatory minimum sentencing reform, and the expansion of the "safety valve" for certain nonviolent offenders. In a 2011 report, the Commission noted that there are "increasing inconsistencies in sentencing practices," which were a cause for concern and legislative action.

The National Research Council of the National Academies has also taken a look at the impact of federal mandatory minimum sentences, finding that "the evidence is insufficient to justify the conclusion that these harsher punishments yield measurable public safety benefits." But this 2014 report, The Growth of Incarceration in the United States: Exploring Causes and Consequences, also took a look at the impact of mandatory minimum sentences and incarceration on communities.

During a colloquy on the Senate floor in March, Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah), the main sponsor of the Smarter Sentencing Act, put the findings of the report in very succinct way: "The National Research Council found that high incarceration rates are concentrated in poor, minority neighborhoods, and that the incarceration of significant numbers of residents in these neighborhoods actually compounded existing social and economic problems such as unemployment, poverty, family disruption, poor health, and drug addiction."

Congress does not have to look very far to see that innovative justice reform has worked. Texas and Georgia are just two success stories, where policymakers implemented sentencing and prison reforms that have reduced costs to taxpayers and prison populations, while also lowering crime and repeat offender rates.

It may be appropriate to include a commission in a comprehensive justice reform package that tackles sentencing and prison reform. But the National Criminal Justice Commission Act, on its own, is not a vehicle for reform, as some of its supporters have clearly indicated.

Congress should follow the lead of conservative lawmakers in states like Texas and Georgia and begin acting on justice reform. The momentum is there to effect real justice reform, and Congress needs to take this opportunity and run with it.