Could Serious Criminal Justice Reform Actually Happen?

Could Serious Criminal Justice Reform Actually Happen? July 16, 2015

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.

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