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The movement to pass measures of criminal justice reform in Washington has sprung to life in the 115th Congress in recent days. In the Senate, conservative champions of the issue have reintroduced legislation that has garnered bipartisan support in past Congresses.
The Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, S.1917, introduced by Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), and the Smarter Sentencing Act, S.1933, introduced by Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) offer the most promising, effective, and comprehensive reforms that the federal justice system needs. The changes proposed to existing laws in these bills parallel those changes that have already been successfully implemented in states such as Georgia, Texas, and South Carolina and have been proven effective.
Chairman Grassley, who sponsored the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act (SRCA) in the 114th Congress, introduced a new version of the same legislation on October 4. The first two titles of the bill are nearly identical to the 2015 bill. Title I tackles “front-end” issues, including reducing over-incarceration and allowing judicial discretion in sentencing. Title II tackles the “back-end,” including reducing recidivism rates and promoting successful reentry into society.
Where S.1917 surpasses last year’s bill is in the inclusion of a third title. Title III, National Criminal Justice Commission Act, creates a commission to conduct a review of the criminal justice system to ensure that reforms suggested are based on data and will therefore be effective. Half a century has gone by without a comprehensive study of this magnitude. The most recent was in 1967, after the President’s Commission on Law Enforcement and Administration of Justice was established. The nature of crimes has changed drastically since the 1960s. New data is needed to reflect that, and effect change.
Ordinarily, creating more government programs and funding government studies are of concern to fiscal conservatives, due to their demand for taxpayer money. But, this commission will actually end up saving taxpayer money, by using savings from the rest of the act, not additional tax dollars, to further streamline resources using the commission’s evidence-based reforms.
The focus of criminal justice reform is certainly not strictly fiscal. It is rooted in other areas of concern, chiefly public safety and crime reduction. Justice reform measures are necessary to ensure that limited resources are used strategically, on criminals who pose a true threat to society. The Smarter Sentencing Act (SSA) introduced on October 5 by Sen. Lee (R-Utah), works to do this.
The SSA focuses on front-end reform, making commonsense changes to sentencing laws. Almost fifty percent of federal prisoners are serving sentences for nonviolent drug offenses, many unnecessarily taking up huge amounts of prison resources. The SSA addresses prison overcrowding by lowering mandatory minimums to give judges more discretion in sentencing minor, non-violent drug offenders as they see fit based on the facts of the case.
Lowering unnecessarily high mandatory minimums--simultaneously keeping big government out of the courtroom--frees up resources in the prison system to be used on violent criminals who need to be kept off the streets, instead of wasting them on non-threatening offenders. Together with the SRCA, the SSA offers additional critical reform to the federal justice system.
The SRCA and the SSA are only two of the initiatives moving through the two chambers this Congress on the issue of justice reform. Proponents of the issue on the House side offered amendments to the appropriations bill, H.R.3354, earlier this fall. Successful in passing the House were amendments from Rep. Justin Amash (R-Mich.), Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.), and Rep. Tim Walberg (R-Mich.) limiting the scope of civil asset forfeiture.
On the Senate side, Sens. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) introduced the RESET Act, S.1252, and the Mens Rea Reform Act, S.1902, respectively. The RESET Act addresses sentencing reform, eliminating the 18-1 sentencing disparity between crack cocaine and powder cocaine, as well as reclassifying low-level felonies as misdemeanors punishable by maximum of 1 year in prison and a $1000 maximum fine. This allows prison resources to be reinvested into dangerous criminals instead, and budgetary savings to be put in a fund to combat crime and promote successful reentry.
The Mens Rea Reform Act goes further back into the front end than sentencing does, by addressing the standards to be met for conviction. Currently, there are an estimated 4,500 federal statutes carrying criminal penalties, and an estimated over 400,000 federal regulations that may be enforced criminally. Individuals should only be convicted of violating one of these if he or she can be proven to have had criminal intent, knowing he or she was breaking the law. He or she must, as mens rea means, have a “guilty mind,” as translated from Latin.
Lack of mens rea protections in an overwhelming amount of federal laws has resulted in massive overcriminalization. The Mens Rea Reform Act sets a default standard for all federal criminal laws currently lacking mens rea protections. Requiring the government to prove that a defendant acted willfully in his or her crime in order to obtain a conviction fights unnecessary imprisonment of nonthreatening defendants, and protects the liberty of innocent-minded Americans.
The combination of the newly-introduced SRCA and the SSA, in conjunction with these more specific-issue legislation, represent chances for for real change in the federal criminal justice system. With similar legislation tried and proven successful in state justice systems, it is long past time for the federal government to get on board as well.