The House Judiciary Committee announced the formation of a criminal justice reform initiative that will examine various pieces of legislation that would address issues including over-criminalization, sentencing reform, and prison reform.
This is not new territory for the committee. Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) established an Over-Criminalization Task Force in the last Congress, led by Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.), that held a dozen hearings where members heard testimony and assessed the approximately 4,500 federal crimes currently on the books. The new initiative will largely continue the work of the previous task force, and take a broader look at the justice system.
"Criminal justice is about punishing law-breakers, protecting the innocent, the fair administration of justice, and fiscal responsibility in a manner that is responsive to the needs of communities. Congress has the responsibility to ensure that our criminal justice system metes out appropriate and effective justice," Goodlatte and Ranking Member John Conyers (D-Mich.) said in a press release on Wednesday. "The Committee’s initiative will pursue responsible, common sense criminal justice reforms to make sure our federal laws and regulations punish wrongdoers, protect individual freedom, work as efficiently and fairly as possible, do not duplicate state efforts, and do not waste taxpayer dollars."
Goodlatte explained that the committee "will work on a bipartisan basis to identify necessary improvements to our criminal justice system" and, beginning this month, "will hear from any Member of the House of Representatives who has an idea to improve our nation’s criminal justice system."
"The goal of the Committee’s initiative is to produce strong, bipartisan legislation so that the criminal justice system better reflects core American values and works for America," he added.
Momentum for true justice reform is building in Congress. This initiative may be a step toward getting some of legislation that has already been introduced some serious traction in the House of Representatives. With this in mind, here are three bills for which FreedomWorks has released letters of support that the House Judiciary Committee should diligently consider.
Fifth Amendment Integrity Restoration (FAIR) Act: Though the initiative is primarily focused on over-criminalization and sentencing reform, any proposed legislation to reform the federal government’s awful civil asset forfeiture laws would go through the House Judiciary Committee. The FAIR Act, sponsored by Rep. Tim Walberg (R-Mich.) in the House and Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) in the Senate, would restore the principle of "innocent until proven guilty" in the justice system by putting the burden of proof on the federal government in civil asset forfeiture cases and raise the standard of proof prosecutors need to forfeit property.
These two vital reforms would offer protections for innocent owners whose property or cash has been wrongfully taken by overzealous law enforcement, the Internal Revenue Service, or other federal agencies. Importantly, the FAIR Act would also direct proceeds from forfeitures to the Treasury Department general fund, eliminating the perverse profit motive often behind seizures of innocent people’s property.
The House version of the FAIR Act, H.R. 540, boasts nearly 50 cosponsors (29 Republicans and 20 Democrats) and is currently awaiting action in four House committees with jurisdiction, including the Judiciary Committee.
Smarter Sentencing Act: Introduced by Rep. Raul Labrador (R-Idaho) in the House and Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) in the Senate, the Smarter Sentencing Act would not eliminate federal mandatory minimum sentences, but reduce them for nonviolent, low-level offenders. The bill would expand the "safety valve" exception to these sentences for eligible offenders and requires the Attorney General and federal agencies to submit reports that identifies all federal criminal offenses required by law or regulations.
The Smarter Sentencing Act is fiscally conservative, providing a net savings of $3 billion over the next decade, according to the Congressional Budget Office’s analysis of last year’s version of the bill. The Justice Department estimates savings of approximately $24 billion over two decades. The House version of the bill, H.R. 920, has bipartisan support, with 44 cosponsors, and has been referred to the Judiciary Committee.
Record Expungement Designed to Enhance Employment (REDEEM) Act: The REDEEM Act, sponsored by Rep. Chaka Fattah (D-Penn.) in the House and Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) in the upper chamber, would allow nonviolent offenders, including juvenile offenders, to petition courts to seal or expunge their records, provided they do not reoffend. By ending the stigma that attaches to a criminal record, the REDEEM Act would allow reformed offenders to seek employment and education opportunities.
Much like the Smarter Sentencing Act, the REDEEM Act is a fiscally conservative piece of legislation. The bill is designed to break the endless cycle of crime and poverty before it starts. According to Pew Charitable Trusts, states could save $470 million each year by reducing repeat offender rates by 10 percent. The House version of the REDEEM Act has been referred to House Judiciary Committee, among others, where it awaits action.
These are just three of the justice reform bills currently in the lower chamber. Others may have good merits, and the committee should review them carefully. But the FAIR Act, Smarter Sentencing Act, and REDEEM Act promote conservative principles that deserve to have the full attention of the committee as this initiative unfolds.