Over the course of the past three years, Congress has made criminal justice reform a priority.
In 2013, House Judiciary Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-VA) created the Over-criminalization Task Force which examined the depth, seriousness, and complexities of the problems facing our federal criminal justice system. The findings that came from the task force allowed Members on the Committee to identify key problem areas and begin the reform process.
Last year, momentum for criminal justice reform reached an all-time high. It united a wide range of law enforcement and political organizations, advocacy groups, and Congressional leaders under a common goal: to fix our broken system.
For months, headlines heaped praise on the bipartisan efforts and cast optimism over upcoming legislation that would address specific areas in desperate need of reform, including front-end sentencing and back-end rehabilitation and re-entry strategies.
A total of 11 bills have already been passed out of the House Judiciary Committee. Speaker Paul D. Ryan expressed earlier this year his desire to see criminal justice reform legislation come to a Floor vote this month, and as Congress reconvenes, it looks as though there is a strong possibility that it will.
That is good news for the millions of American currently living with the consequences of over-criminalization in our country. Although a large number the nation’s 2.3 million inmates deserve their place behind bars, too many low-level, non-violent individuals are caught up in broken system. Their incarceration diverts limited resources away from other priorities, such as policing and the capture and punishment of violent and career criminals.
For too long, the pressing need for criminal justice reform has been put on the backburner. It has led to increasing financial burdens on taxpayers, violent outbursts in economically depressed neighborhoods throughout the nation, and the breakdown of hundreds of thousands of American families.
Fifty percent of the current prison population suffers from substance abuse problems, mental health issues, or a combination of both. Our criminal justice system is not equipped to provide these individuals with the help they need to gain control of their lives and acquire the critical work skills necessary to successfully re-enter society and the workforce. Without these basic tools, the likelihood of recidivism is high.
Despite the recent downtick of media coverage on the issue, Americans largely support reform efforts, with 6 out of 10 saying there are too many drug criminals taking up space in prisons. Further, 85 percent support allowing people in prison to earn time off their sentences through rehabilitation and work skills programs.
Each piece of legislation currently on the table addresses specific problems in the current system and offers common sense, fiscally responsible solutions that will increase public safety, support law enforcement and victims of crime, and decrease the overwhelming financial burden on hardworking taxpayers. However, none of it matters unless Congress is willing to pass legislation and President Obama is ready to sign it.
At the heart of federal criminal justice reform is the desire to create a better way forward for every American struggling under our broken system. Families ripped apart by incarceration, communities divided by a seemingly impenetrable wall between law enforcement and the neighborhoods they protect, and an ineffective justice system not only weakens the fabric of society, but hinders economic growth and opportunity for all Americans.
Three years ago, Congress began a journey to rectify the injustices in our federal criminal justice system. Right now, we have the opportunity to finish the job and pass meaningful and effective reform legislation. Our system cannot continue on its current trajectory. It’s not only fiscally unsustainable, but morally irresponsible. We must do better and we can do better.