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Federal Criminal Justice Reform Is Alive And Well

| September 24, 2015

This week, Senator Orrin Hatch delivered a speech on the Senate floor about mens rea reform. Legislation proposed in the House and Senate earlier this year appears to be headed for debate in front of the respective chambers’ Judiciary Committees. Speaker of the House John Boehner expressed his desire to move criminal justice reform sooner rather than later.

Despite this news, a new, unfortunate theme has emerged in the discussion on criminal justice reform at the federal level. After plenty of “strange bedfellows” articles that discussed how reform has become a transpartisan issue in Washington, DC, the tone has now shifted in the media. In the doomsayers’ eyes, criminal justice reform has gone from the great, uniting policy issue of our day to the legislation that is on the verge of spectacular collapse.

To borrow a phrase, the reports of criminal justice reform’s death are an exaggeration.

Just last week, a panel of experts from seven leading policy organizations, including Right on Crime, assembled at the U.S. Capitol to launch the Coalition for Public Safety’s Fair Sentencing and Fair Chances National Tour. The panel featured representatives from the Left and the Right, including ROC signatory Grover Norquist, all discussing the ways in which we plan to work together and move legislation in Congress and in the states.

If you saw the public conversation between the panelists, you would recognize that there is no good reason that the defeatist theme has emerged. Blame it on the statements of some careless soundbites; or the opponents of reform; or the long-time advocates for change, who are growing impatient with Congress. But the reality of the situation is very different than the well-placed rumors.

The delay in progress is easy to explain. The first issue is a simple one: Congress has been on vacation. Though congressional staffers have been putting many hours over the legislature’s recess, the members have been out of town and unable to meet and actually mark up or vote on legislation. That will change this fall.

Second, and more important, policymakers are analyzing every word of every proposed bill. Unlike other hashtag-able hot topics, criminal justice reform requires a deep dive into the process and policies governing criminal law. Frankly, reversing the mistakes made in the 1990s will require careful consideration, trying to find a balance that ensures both public safety and cost effectiveness.

Would it be better if legislation had already been signed into law? Of course. But the absence of a quick turnaround by Congress in order to ride the media cycle’s wave is a positive sign about the potential for federal reform.

Is it also possible that the rumors may be fulfilled after all, and Congress will not pass reform in this session? Perhaps. But there are not enough naysayers, nor is there is a level of gridlock that can forever hold back the needed changes to the federal criminal justice system. States have led the way on overcriminalization, sentencing, prison reform, and civil asset forfeiture, and the federal government will soon catch up.