Congress Set To Take On Criminal Justice Reform This Year

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By Casey Harper

A bipartisan group of 20 congressmen introduced a comprehensive criminal justice reform bill Thursday that would have huge implications for millions of Americans.

Republican Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner and Democrat Rep. Bobby Scott introduced the SAFE Justice Act, a bill that would implement major reforms across all areas of the justice system, particularly how the country treats drug crimes.

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The bill addresses a range of issues, from overcriminalization to the ballooning prison population. It would also make it harder for agencies to put criminal penalties on their legislation, prioritize prison time for violent offenders instead of low level drug offenses, and invest in police relations and accountability.

Mark Holden, general counsel and senior vice president at Koch Industries, told The Daily Caller News Foundation Friday that although it’s still up in the air, in his conversations congressmen tell him they’re optimistic it could pass this year. He agrees, hoping to “strike while the iron is hot.”

A key provision in the bill would make it more difficult for agencies to create regulations with criminal penalties, and those regulations would sunset after five years if not renewed.

“That’s the problem,” Holden told TheDCNF. “We’ve decided we want to make criminal a lot of things that aren’t criminal, and it’s a huge cost, human, societal, fiscal, all around, so yeah I think if that could happen that would be great for everybody. That’s a major part of the bill, the reversal of this trend of overcriminalization particularly by regulatory agencies.”

The bill is expected to significantly shrink the prison population, partially by treating drug criminals much differently than violent and sex criminals. Some drug criminals would have opportunities to have their sentences reduced by going through programs set up for them.

“The federal system is really a dinosaur in the way that it relies almost entirely on prison, and lots of it, to address drug crime,” Molly Gill, government affairs counsel for Families Against Mandatory Minimums, told TheDCNF. “The states are much more innovative and recognize that prison is both an expensive and ineffective solution to drug crime.”

The bill has bipartisan support from 10 Republican original sponsors and 10 Democrat original sponsors, as well as groups as diverse as Koch and the American Civil Liberties Union.

“I think there are some great bills in the Senate. but there has been a bunch of them and there isn’t one in the way that this one feels like it’s a vehicle where they can get all of these different organizations and all of their networks and all of their money and partnerships that exist outside of the house to push this as a vehicle,” Matt Haney, director of policy for the criminal justice reform group Cut50, told TheDCNF.

Growing discontentment with the criminal justice system has been fueled by a plethora of police brutality cases, a growing resentment toward the drug war, and the financial strain put on states that can no longer afford to house their burgeoning prison populations.

“I live in the district where Freddie Gray lived,” Rep. Elijah Cummings said in a press conference Thursday. “I live within a few blocks of where he died, and…our country is better than this. What we are doing absolutely no sense. I don’t know that the stars will align this way, the way I’ve got these folks in the room…I don’t know whether they will align this way in my lifetime, at least my political lifetime, so lets take advantage of this.”

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