Justice Reform Gets a Boost from the Director of the FBI

During a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on Wednesday, FBI Director James Comey signaled support for Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, calling the bill "reasonable." The legislation, which would expand the existing federal "safety valve" exception to mandatory minimum sentences, was approved by the committee in October and is awaiting action before the full Senate, which could happen in early 2016. In early November, FreedomWorks released a letter of support for the bill.

Before serving as the director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Comey was a United States attorney for the Southern District of New York and a deputy attorney general in the President George W. Bush’s administration. Another former Bush administration official, Michael Mukasey, who served as attorney general from November 2007 to January 2009, testified in support of the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act before the Senate Judiciary Committee in October.

Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) brought up the legislation during Wednesday’s hearing. “Earlier this year this committee in a bipartisan fashion approved a sentencing reform bill that reduces, does not eliminates but reduces mandatory minimum sentences. As I’ve said oftentimes publicly, I’d like to see an end to all mandatory minimums, but, at least, it’s a good step in reforming our criminal justice system," said Leahy. "Do you agree that it strikes a reasonable balance?"

Comey noted that the FBI does not take positions on legislation before Congress, but he did signal support, though he stopped just short of endorsing the bill. "I actually read the bill and my reaction was it’s reasonable, the things that are discussed in there are reasonable. I have found mandatory minimums – and we may disagree on this — to be an important part of making some of the most important cases I was involved with," Comey told the committee. "But I think that the reform as I understand it seems reasonable to me."

Though some have tried to slow moment for the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act by frequently claiming that crime rates are on the rise, data released by the FBI show that crime actually declined in 2014. In fact, crime, particularly violent crime, has been on a downward pace for 20 years. According to a recent analysis conducted by researchers at the Brennan Center for Justice, crime rates for 2015 are expected to decline. "Crime overall in 2015," the report explains, "is expected to be largely unchanged from last year, decreasing 1.5 percent."

The reforms offered in the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act are similar to those adopted in conservative states like Texas and Georgia. Among other policies, the bill would expand the existing federal "safety valve" exception to mandatory minimums and bring meaningful rehabilitative programming to the federal prison system that would give offenders opportunities to become productive, taxpaying citizens after they have paid their debts to society.

The bill could also mitigate the exploding costs of the federal prison system, which threatens to crowd out other agencies under the purview of the Department of Justice, including the FBI. Currently, the Federal Bureau of Prisons consumes a quarter of the DOJ’s budget. This, DOJ Inspector General Michael Horowitz explained in November, is "a significant challenge the Department cannot ignore."

"The BOP currently has the largest budget of any Department component other than the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), accounting for more than 25 percent of the Department’s discretionary budget in FY 2015, and employing 34 percent of the Department’s staff," Horowitz wrote. "The BOP’s enacted budget was nearly $7 billion in FY 2015, an 11-percent increase since FY 2009, despite a decline in the federal prison population from 214,149 in FY 2014 to 206,176 in FY 2015 — its lowest level in 6 years."

The Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act may not have everything its supporters want, but the bill is based on conservative principles, which is why Sens. Mike Lee (R-Utah) and Rand Paul (R-Ky.) have signed on as cosponsors, and it takes steps in the right direction toward improving the United States’ justice system. It is the first of many reasonable steps needed to use taxpayers money effectively and wisely to bring those who break the law to justice and ensure that they are properly rehabilitated so that they never return to prison.