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Thursday was a huge day for anyone following the debate and movement on justice reform, the interest in which has grown substantially in recent days. Out of nowhere, Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) gave his support for, perhaps, the most comprehensive justice reform bill proposed in the current Congress.
Sponsored by Reps. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.) and Bobby Scott (D-Va.), the Safe, Accountable, Fair, and Effective (SAFE) Justice Act, H.R. 2944, is based on many successful “state-tested” reforms, such as those enacted in Texas and Georgia. The bill is all encompassing, addressing front-end sentencing and back-end reentry. It also tackles over-criminalization and over-federalization in federal law.
Momentum had already been building for justice reform. Though some very good pieces of legislation had been introduced in the House, most eyes were on the Senate, where members of the Judiciary Committee are hammering out a deal that will include prison and sentencing reforms found in the CORRECTIONS Act and Smarter Sentencing Act, the latter of which FreedomWorks supports.
During his weekly press conference on Thursday, Boehner was asked whether he would allow the SAFE Justice Act to come to the floor for a vote. His answer was unexpected but welcome because, as FreedomWorks CEO Adam Brandon notes, it shows tremendous momentum for justice reform in Congress.
“I’ve long believed that there needed to be reform of our criminal justice system. Chairman [Bob] Goodlatte, last year, put together a working group that had recommendations, and I support those recommendations, by and large, embraced in the bill that Mr. Sensenbrenner has with Mr. Scott,” Boehner told reporters at his weekly press conference. “I’d like to see it on the floor.” Sensenbrenner and Scott led the House Judiciary Committee’s Over-Criminalization Task Force.
Responding to another question, Boehner said, “We’ve got a lot of people in prison, frankly, that don’t really in my view need to be there. It’s expensive to house prisoners, sometimes, frankly. Some of these people are in there for what I’ll call flimsy reasons.”
“And, so, I think it’s time that we review this process they have, and I’m looking forward to putting those recommendations on the floor,” he added.
Sensenbrenner and Scott testified on Tuesday before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, where they extolled the merits of the bill to receptive colleagues. Currently, the SAFE Justice Act has 33 cosponsors (17 Democrats and 16 Republicans). Notable conservative Republican cosponsors include Reps. Raul Labrador (R-Idaho), Tom McClintock (R-Calif.), Mia Love (R-Utah), and Ted Yoho (R-Fla.).
The SAFE Justice Act is offers sweeping justice reform. The bill addresses over-federalization of criminal law and over-criminalization in federal law. It focuses on sentencing reforms, many of which reflect provisions in the Smarter Sentencing Act, by creating a second “safety valve” exception to mandatory minimums to include more low-level, nonviolent offenders with little to no criminal history. It provides eligibility for resentencing under the safety valve and makes the provisions of the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 retroactive.
The bill includes provisions designed to reduce repeat offender rates by creating risk reduction programs – such as drug and mental health treatment, education, and work training – for eligible inmates and back-end reentry programs. It requires post-sentencing risk assessments of eligible offenders and allows offenders to earn time credits upon the completion of risk reduction programs.
The SAFE Justice Act has been submitted to the Congressional Budget Office for a score. The pending report will be important for fiscal conservatives who want justice reform. In addition to addressing the long overdue problems with the federal prison system and sentencing guidelines, any comprehensive justice reform legislation considered by Congress must produce cost-savings. The Federal Bureau of Prisons, appropriations for which have skyrocketed since FY 2000, consumes roughly a quarter of the Justice Department's budget, and it is crowding out funding for other equally important areas of law enforcement.
There is a unique opportunity to get something big done on justice reform this year. The potential reform will reduce big government's role in the courtroom, create transparency and accountability in the justice system, and make communities safer. If done correctly, Congress can also produce cost-savings to reduce the burden on taxpayers.