Could Serious Criminal Justice Reform Actually Happen?

I‘ve been saying for years that we will likely never fix our completely broken criminal justice system because there’s no money in it, no wealthy constituency with a stake in the outcome to spend the money necessary to make Congress take it seriously. But it’s looking like my cynicism might have been at least partly wrong.

As President Barack Obama on Tuesday evening called on Congress to take up criminal justice reform, a bipartisan group on Capitol Hill was putting the final touches on a sentencing overhaul deal to be announced as soon as next week.

Their message to the president: You’re preaching to the choir.

“We’ve actually been working on it for quite a while,” said Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas), one of the key negotiators of a package being hashed by members of the Senate Judiciary Committee. “You may see some legislation here in the next week or so. This is active. … [W]e’re close.”

Obama told a crowd of 3,300 at the NAACP convention in Philadelphia that he’s “feeling more hopeful today” about the prospects of legislation because Republicans and Democrats never agree on anything but “a lot of them agree on this.”…

“Republican senators from Utah and Texas are joining Democratic senators from New Jersey and Rhode Island to talk about how Congress can pass meaningful criminal justice reform this year,” Obama said. “We should pass a sentencing reform bill through Congress this year.”

Right now, the prospects for such legislation seem good, given that lawmakers from both parties have been wrangling with a reform bill for months.

Tuesday, for example, the House Oversight Committee became at least the third congressional panel to highlight problems in the justice system, inviting two governors, a handful of senators, House members and experts to discuss a path forward for reducing the number of inmates in federal prisons.

Hours later, the House officially formed the Congressional Criminal Justice and Public Safety Caucus, which will include justice reform supporters. And across the Capitol, Cornyn joined Sens. Mike Lee (R-Utah), Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I) for a public dialogue that emphasized the importance of reform.

The biggest announcement is just around the corner: Senate Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) told POLITICO on Tuesday that his panel is close to announcing a deal on the bipartisan package his panel has been working on for months. Only about four outstanding issues remain, he said, predicting the package will be unveiled before August recess.

The fact that there is bipartisan support is, in the current atmosphere, almost astonishing. And in retrospect, perhaps it’s precisely because there’s no moneyed constituency willing to spend what it takes to get what they want that is allowing such bipartisanship on this issue. I think we can anticipate some serious sentencing reforms, getting rid of mandatory minimums at the federal level and such, and that’s a big step in the right direction.

Now the bad news: It’s only one step of a huge number that need to be taken. What I seriously doubt we’ll get is any federal funding for public defenders, which is so badly needed that I can’t possibly overstate how important it is. More than 80% of all criminal defendants have public defenders, who are incredibly underpaid and overworked, with no resources to mount a serious defense. Combine that with prosecutors overcharging to gain leverage and you know why about 95% of all charges end in plea bargains, whether the defendant is guilty or not.

I also don’t expect to see any policy to address the problem of blatant racism in the enforcement of the law. Or any reforms of our terrible criminal forensics labs, or the use of eyewitness testimony, or any reining in of the many abuses in police interrogations. I do hope to see federal funding for body cameras for police officers, which is good, but there is just so much more that needs to be done. I could literally write 10,000 words just on all the things that are broken in the system.

Still, like President Obama I am a bit more hopeful today that at least a few important reforms may pass soon, and with bipartisan support. That’s more than I have thought possible for a very long time.

POPULAR AT PATHEOS Nonreligious
What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • http://twitter.com/#!/TabbyLavalamp Tabby Lavalamp

    Now if you could only do something about the abominations that are elected judges, elected district attorneys, and private prisons, perhaps positive change could happen.

  • http://twitter.com/#!/TabbyLavalamp Tabby Lavalamp

    Now if you could only do something about the abominations that are elected judges, elected district attorneys, and private prisons, perhaps positive change could happen.

  • http://www.thelosersleague.com theschwa

    Obama has me confused. Is this part of his agenda to force homosex down our throats, or part of his Benghazi/Muslim takeover/giveaway of the country? It is probably part of his open-borders, let-in-the-Mexican-rapists strategy.

    Or are we seeing a 4th front??

  • http://www.thelosersleague.com theschwa

    Obama has me confused. Is this part of his agenda to force homosex down our throats, or part of his Benghazi/Muslim takeover/giveaway of the country? It is probably part of his open-borders, let-in-the-Mexican-rapists strategy.

    Or are we seeing a 4th front??

  • http://en.uncyclopedia.co/wiki/User:Modusoperandi Modusoperandi

    Could Serious Criminal Justice Reform Actually Happen?

    Look, we all have different priorities, but I think, objectively, we should tackle Silly Criminal Justice Reform first.

  • http://en.uncyclopedia.co/wiki/User:Modusoperandi Modusoperandi

    Could Serious Criminal Justice Reform Actually Happen?

    Look, we all have different priorities, but I think, objectively, we should tackle Silly Criminal Justice Reform first.

  • http://www.facebook.com/eo.raptor.3 eoraptor

    The other glaring omission is that this does nothing for the 50 state criminal justice systems that are just as broken as the federal system.

  • http://www.facebook.com/eo.raptor.3 eoraptor

    The other glaring omission is that this does nothing for the 50 state criminal justice systems that are just as broken as the federal system.

  • http://artk.typepad.com ArtK

    And in retrospect, perhaps it’s precisely because there’s no moneyed constituency willing to spend what it takes to get what they want that is allowing such bipartisanship on this issue.

    There is, but I think that they’ve been surprised by this. Between the for-profit prison industry and correctional officers unions, I think we’ll see some serious opposition in the near future. The COs union is about the most powerful political entity in California these days.

    That said, I really hope that we can get some change going. The other things that you cite are terrible as well, but I’ll be very happy with sentencing reform.

  • http://artk.typepad.com ArtK

    And in retrospect, perhaps it’s precisely because there’s no moneyed constituency willing to spend what it takes to get what they want that is allowing such bipartisanship on this issue.

    There is, but I think that they’ve been surprised by this. Between the for-profit prison industry and correctional officers unions, I think we’ll see some serious opposition in the near future. The COs union is about the most powerful political entity in California these days.

    That said, I really hope that we can get some change going. The other things that you cite are terrible as well, but I’ll be very happy with sentencing reform.

  • colnago80

    This is all very well but it only addresses the problems at the federal level. It does absolutely nothing about the problems at the state and local level, which are much worse then at the federal level. The fact is that most criminal justice involves takes place at the local level.

    Re eoraptor # $4

    The criminal justice system is in much worse shape at the local level, where prosecutors and judges are often elected.

    Re ArtK @ #5

    AFAIK, the federal prisons haven’t (yet) been privatized. If Scott Walker is somehow elected president, I suspect he’ll get to work on that. However, there is no doubt that the privatization of state and local prisons and the immense power of the correctional officer’s unions is something that has to be addressed. Reforms made at the federal won’t have any effect on this problem. Tabby Lavalamp @ #1 has it right on the money. I assume this is not the situation in Canada.

  • colnago80

    This is all very well but it only addresses the problems at the federal level. It does absolutely nothing about the problems at the state and local level, which are much worse then at the federal level. The fact is that most criminal justice involves takes place at the local level.

    Re eoraptor # $4

    The criminal justice system is in much worse shape at the local level, where prosecutors and judges are often elected.

    Re ArtK @ #5

    AFAIK, the federal prisons haven’t (yet) been privatized. If Scott Walker is somehow elected president, I suspect he’ll get to work on that. However, there is no doubt that the privatization of state and local prisons and the immense power of the correctional officer’s unions is something that has to be addressed. Reforms made at the federal won’t have any effect on this problem. Tabby Lavalamp @ #1 has it right on the money. I assume this is not the situation in Canada.

  • http://twitter.com/#!/TabbyLavalamp Tabby Lavalamp

    Colnago – Harper’s doing his bit to undermine our justice system, but fortunately our prisons are still government-owned and nobody on the prosecuting side is elected.

  • http://twitter.com/#!/TabbyLavalamp Tabby Lavalamp

    Colnago – Harper’s doing his bit to undermine our justice system, but fortunately our prisons are still government-owned and nobody on the prosecuting side is elected.

  • http://en.uncyclopedia.co/wiki/User:Modusoperandi Modusoperandi

    colnago80 “I assume this is not the situation in Canada.”

    Canada doesn’t have prisons. Have you seen Canada? Sheesh. They just built a wall around Hamilton. For good behavior they offer to add time to your sentence.

  • http://en.uncyclopedia.co/wiki/User:Modusoperandi Modusoperandi

    colnago80 “I assume this is not the situation in Canada.”

    Canada doesn’t have prisons. Have you seen Canada? Sheesh. They just built a wall around Hamilton. For good behavior they offer to add time to your sentence.

  • Synfandel

    Modusoperandi, it’s not that cushy in Canadian prisons. When I bitched about my rib-eye being overdone, the warden cancelled my pedicure. I’m totally getting my John Howard guy onto this.

  • Synfandel

    Modusoperandi, it’s not that cushy in Canadian prisons. When I bitched about my rib-eye being overdone, the warden cancelled my pedicure. I’m totally getting my John Howard guy onto this.

  • colnago80

    Re Tabby Lavalamp @ #7

    Federal prosecutors and judges in the US are appointed, not elected. Federal judges are appointed for life.

  • colnago80

    Re Tabby Lavalamp @ #7

    Federal prosecutors and judges in the US are appointed, not elected. Federal judges are appointed for life.