We Need Thoughtful, Not Expedient, Criminal Justice Reform
By Edwin Meese III, LELDF Board member
and Ron Hosko, LELDF President
Republican and Democrat lawmakers in Washington have long been criticized for their failure to work together in producing legislation that will actually benefit most Americans.
The popularity of “outsider” presidential candidates Donald Trump, Carly Fiorina, and Sen. Bernie Sanders (D-Vt.) is clearly fueled by millions of disaffected voters on the left and right who believe Washington is “broken,” mired in partisan political squabbling and endless, wasteful bureaucracy.
Last week, a bipartisan group of U.S. senators, keenly aware of simmering voter discontent, stood together to announce a criminal justice reform bill purportedly designed to balance the wishes of the political left’s sentencing reform movement and the conservative, “tough on crime” crowd on Capitol Hill.
But, in their effort to produce a compromise reform bill that would appease both sides, these D.C. insiders may again be creating more problems than they solve.
What’s worse—and the ultimate sign of Beltway arrogance—is that the bill’s sponsors propose passing it with only one short hearing. In other words, like Obamacare, “We have to pass it to learn what’s in it.”
We believe that the Congress must hear from the law enforcement community, from prosecutors and judges, and other informed professionals who can fully explore and openly explain the bill’s repercussions. The world’s most deliberative body owes no less to its constituents.
In its current form, this sweeping sentencing bill reduces too many mandatory minimum sentences, would result the early release thousands of violent criminals, and could make our streets far more dangerous.
Unless changed, this bill would also give current repeat drug conspirators—who arguably poison thousands of people a year with their illegal products—far less severe sentences.
Any police officer who has walked the streets in a high drug traffic area of their city would certainly disagree with labeling drug dealers as nonviolent. Common sense reminds us that some of the nation’s worst violence is fueled by the illegal drug trade, its career organizers, and their henchmen.
The proposed Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act is 141 pages long and laden with references to prior law, making clear understanding of its intent and potential impact more difficult. Ironically, the bill’s introduction comes at the very time where over 20 years of declining violent crime rates appear to be turning sharply upward in cities across America.
A bill of this importance requires careful study and thorough understanding. As with any new legislation that might dramatically impact both our national budget and public safety, lawmakers need to be fully informed of the projected impacts of the proposed law and Congress should demonstrate the greatest transparency of motives, benefits, and risks in a way that garners the informed support of the people.
One of the discussions within the criminal justice reform movement is the burdensome cost and results of long term incarceration and the value of such incarceration for certain minor drug offenses.
These are valuable conversations. However, no one should be fooled into believing that at the federal level, prosecutors have charged and judges have sentenced thousands of defendants to years in prison for committing “minor” drug offenses.
In fact, a federal prosecutors group has rebutted that argument in the past and is raising their voice against the current legislation.
Alarmingly, the new bill doesn’t stop at reforms that would release drug enterprise participants. It includes provisions to roll back sentencing provisions for certain felons previously convicted of gun crimes.
Despite these crimes being inherently violent, and despite the alarming upturn in shootings and gun homicides in many big cities, one provision actually reduces the enhanced minimum mandatory sentence for “armed career offenders.”
Congress needs to worry less about producing a compromise, politically expedient criminal justice reform bill to show that they can actually accomplish something jointly.
Only through substantive hearings with experts, particularly those from law enforcement, and a meaningful review of sentencing data and recidivism projections that show that we can expect 67 percent of released prisoners to be rearrested within three years and 75 percent of them rearrested within five years, might our lawmakers and the public understand how this bill will impact both convicted felons and an apprehensive citizenry.
Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), a respected Republican supporter of this bill, recently stated, "There's a fine line between leniency and levelheadedness. That's why I'm working for balanced reforms that do not compromise public safety and national security."
We commend Grassley on that stated goal. But, in its present form, the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act raises far more questions than it answers.
We implore Grassley to help us to enter into this process with eyes wide open.