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On July 14th and 15th the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee held a heavily attended hearings on justice reform. A common sentiment throughout the two-day event was gratitude for the truly bipartisan nature of the effort to restructure our justice system. Hopeful people are coming together from across party lines, as is rarely seen in Congress, to restore liberty and save billions in taxpayer dollars.
Chairman Jason Chaffetz (R-UT) opened the hearing by expressing concern at lacking employment opportunities for rehabilitated people, mandatory sentencing and mandatory minimum laws which incarcerate average citizens, the abuse of solitary confinement, and high rates of recidivism, or the number of people who return to prison after being released (up to 60% in some states).
These concerns were echoed repeatedly by members and witnesses in attendance. Also addressed were statistics about astronomically high incarceration rates in the United States (the highest rate of any country). According to Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ), nearly one in three Americans has an arrest record, one in nine black children has an incarcerated parent, and the number of people currently incarcerated is greater than the population of 36 of our 50 states. One statistic that elicited murmurs from the overflowing crowd said that a new prison is built in America every 10 days.
One startling issue that continued to come up throughout the hearing is the fact that many people accused of crimes are unaware that their actions are illegal. Brett L. Tolman, co-chair of White Collar Criminal Defense and Corporate Compliance Practice Group and witness at the hearing, told the room that there are over 300,000 regulations; they are absolutely impossible to keep track of, even for those who study criminal law. Furthermore, with increasing frequency, crimes are classified as federal offenses, meaning many nonviolent offenders are drawn into the federal system, sometimes without even knowing that they had committed a crime. In fact, it is estimated that the average American commits three felonies a day.
Each member and witness had specific concerns about the state of our justice system. Gov. Jack Markell (D-DE) testified about overcrowding in our prisons, saying that many of the prisoners (as many as 40% of inmates in women’s prisons in his state) are pre-trial, and have yet to be convicted of a crime.
“You guys are preaching to the choir,” joked Rep. Mick Mulvaney (R-SC), in summary of a majority of the hearing. But simply because people are in agreement about serious problems in the justice system does not mean it will be easy to find a solution that effectively addresses problems while minimizing spending, and maximizing liberty and safety.
Booker lamented the ability to “take and seize the liberty of people to the extent that we have.”
Loss of liberty truly is the effect of over criminalization and federalization. We have created a system that dehumanizes people for nonviolent crimes and leaves good people at the mercy of harsh minimum sentences that are unfair and do not take into account the circumstances of the accused. It is big government in the courtroom.
Additionally, the prison system is fiscally unsustainable. The federal prison population has grown by almost 800 percent since 1980, rising from approximately 25,000 inmates to around 208,500 today. Funding for the Federal Bureau of Prisons, which consumes 25% of the Justice Department’s overall budget, has almost doubled since 2000. We must be smarter with our money. It is limited and not being put to good use.
Jason Pye, Director of Justice Reform at FreedomWorks, wrote last week that “[r]estoring common sense to sentencing and rehabilitating offenders through innovative and state-tested means to reduce their risks of going back to prison” results in significant savings that are highly appealing to conservatives and libertarians. Pye explained:
Texas, for example, implemented sensible prison and sentencing reforms, though with a small upfront cost, that focused on rehabilitation and treatment as alternatives to incarceration. By disrupting the cycle of crime through reducing offenders' chances of entering the system again, Texas closed prisons and scrapped plans to build new prisons. These reforms produced $3 billion in savings and contributed to reductions in crime and repeat offender rates.
Booker told the members of the committee to “embrace solutions we already see working,” referring to policies in place in states like Texas and Georgia which have taken measures to reform their justice systems.
Rep. Jody Hice (R-GA) repented that Georgia has historically been called “tough on crime,” adding air quotes for emphasis, and asserted that “that toughness hasn’t worked.” He went on to express his pride in reformed state laws which have allowed Georgia, a traditionally Republican state, to lead the way for justice reform on the national level.
Throughout the hearing there was a strong show of support for the proposed Safe, Accountable, Fair, and Effective (SAFE) Justice Act by many, including Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-WI), Rep. Bobby Scott (D-VA), and Kevin Ring, Director of Strategic Initiatives at Families Against Mandatory Minimums, who was a witness at the hearing and had himself been incarcerated.
In an official FreedomWorks statement, Pye called the SAFE Justice Act a “bipartisan reform effort that would address both sentencing reform and prison reform,” explaining that it “takes a different approach to sentencing reform by limiting mandatory minimum drug sentences to the highest-level drug offenders, which is in line with Congress’s original intent for the law. The bill would also give prisoners time credits for completing rehabilitative programming.”
We all have something to be excited about. In the words of Ranking Member Elijah Cummings (D-MD), this was “a landmark hearing.” Hopefully, those who have come together from across the political spectrum will be able to create real, positive change.