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Joe Luppino-Esposito | January 13, 2016
If you tuned in to the State of the Union Address to hear about federal criminal justice reform, you would have been disappointed. And if you were a minute late tuning in, you missed the only mention completely. President Barack Obama, in addressing Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, said “So I hope we can work together this year on bipartisan priorities like criminal justice reform, and helping people who are battling prescription drug abuse.” That’s it.
No matter where you stand politically, if you favor criminal justice reform, you probably wanted to see more leadership from the president. But it’s nothing to lose sleep over.
What the State of the Union address reminds us is that the president is a newcomer to criminal justice reform that actually works. Conservatives, working in dozens of states, have been leading the way in making communities safer while lowering incarceration rates. Using facts and data, reformers on the right have led the way, and many of those enthusiastic supporters have brought those reforms to even more states.
As usual, the federal government is playing catch up with states like Texas. There are proposals being debated in Congress that will bring the federal system closer to the successes of conservative criminal justice reform.
Though President Obama opted not to lead on the issue, it does not mean the rest of us need to wait for him to catch up. Bills are moving through Congress, and there are still ways that Obama can help.
If Obama is serious about bipartisan agreement on criminal justice reform, then his administration should back down from their inflammatory and false rhetoric surrounding criminal intent reform. To ensure that all federal criminal laws require a guilty mind, or mens rea, is a common sense reform. Legislation in the House has bipartisan cosponsors and has unanimously passed out of the Judiciary Committee. It is far from a deal-killer that some would claim. Criminal intent is a critical part of American criminal law, and is should be included in federal reform efforts.
As for Congress—it should keep moving on legislation. On the morning of the State of the Union speech, the House Judiciary Committee, led by Rep. Bob Goodlatte of Virginia, continues to mark-up and pass criminal justice reform bills. The Senate needs to take action on reforms that have already passed its own Judiciary Committee.
Conservatives know that the loftier the words that President Obama uses, the less likely he will produce results. As Obama largely omitted talk of criminal justice reform, here’s to hoping that the inverse is true.