Criminal Justice Reform Heads to Senate Floor

Commission would conduct full review of nation's criminal justice system

Virginia Sen. Jim Webb
Virginia Sen. Jim Webb

Roughly 10 months after it was introduced in the U.S. Senate, the Criminal Justice Commission Act of 2009 on Thursday passed out of the Judiciary Committee with bipartisan support. The bill now heads to the full Senate for a vote.

And if the success of the bill in committee is any indication – it earned the nod from influential judiciary GOP Sens. Lindsey Graham, Jeff Sessions, and Orrin Hatch – then the prospect of its passage out of the senate is strong. (Unfortunately, neither of Texas' senators have yet to sign on in support of the measure.) The bill, filed last spring by Virginia Democratic Sen. Jim Webb, is ambitious: Review the entire criminal justice system from top to bottom, decide what's working, what isn't, and make recommendations to fix what's broken. And all topics will be up for discussion – including whether the nation's drug laws are actually effective.

If passed, the Commission would be the first of its kind since the establishment in 1965 of the President's Commission on Law Enforcement and Administration and Justice. That group took 18 months to conduct its review before bringing to Congress 200 recommendations to make the system better. More than 40 years later, Webb thinks it's time to revisit the issue. "The overwhelming support from both sides of the aisle for restructuring our criminal justice system is very encouraging for our country," Webb said. "We are taking an inclusive, broad-based approach here, and I believe that's the best way to move our country away from a system based on ideology and fear, and toward what is fair and what keeps us safe."

The bill has received support from a broad coalition, and on Thursday also earned endorsements from the Fraternal Order of Police and the International Association of Chiefs of Police. "For far too long our nation's law enforcement and criminal justice system has lacked a strategic plan to guide an integrated public safety and homeland security effort in the years ahead," IACP President Michael Carroll said. "For these reasons, it is imperative that the [bill] be enacted as quickly as possible."

Many drug-law reformers agree, including the advocates with Families Against Mandatory Minimums: "Any comprehensive reform of our criminal justice system must include eliminating mandatory minimum laws," said Jennifer Seltzer Stitt, FAMM's director of federal legislative affairs. "One-size-fits-all mandatory drug sentencing laws enacted in the 1980s are responsible for filling prisons with low-level nonviolent drug offenders, wasting millions in taxpayer dollars, and destroying public trust in the criminal justice system." Indeed, states have already begun to do away with man-min sentencing. Earlier this month, outgoing New Jersey Gov. Jon Corzine signed into law a bill that eliminated man-min sentences for some drug crimes, and in December Rhode Island eliminated all man-min sentences for drug crimes.

If passed, the Commission would have 18 months and up to $14 million to complete its review and would sunset 60 days after reporting its findings and recommendations to Congress.

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