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Elijah Cummings Now Is The Time For Bipartisan Criminal Justice Reform


Opportunities for progress can arise even during times of social conflict and political acrimony — an insight illustrated by the current bipartisan congressional interest in criminal justice reform.

In the wake of the recent social upheaval, we are working on a bipartisan basis in the House of Representatives to advance proposed legislation that would provide body-worn cameras to law enforcement, better train officers with respect to the impact of bias, increase our information about police-involved deaths, and support more effective interventions for both at-risk youth and former offenders who are reentering society.

One of the most important bipartisan reform measures currently under consideration is the Safe, Accountable, Fair, and Effective Justice Act, or the SAFE Justice Act [H.R. 2944], that was introduced in the House on June 26th by Representatives Jim Sensenbrenner (R-WI) and Bobby Scott (D-VA) together with 20 bipartisan cosponsors.

“Our criminal justice system is long overdue for reform,” Rep. Scott has declared.  “The SAFE Justice Act … utilizes an evidence-based approach to reduce over-criminalization and over-incarceration and reinvests the savings into community based prevention and early-intervention programs to improve public safety.”

Informed by my years of criminal justice experience on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, I welcomed this opportunity to be an original cosponsor of these potential reforms.

As Rep. Sensenbrenner has correctly observed, with just 5 percent of the world’s population, the United States accounts for 25 percent of the world’s prison population.

Through reform, the states are reducing their levels of incarceration while also sustaining reductions in crime. Yet, imprisonment in federal prisons has been increasing dramatically.

From 1980 to 2013, the number of incarcerated offenders in federal prisons skyrocketed from 24,000 to more than 215,000.  However, despite these extraordinary increases in incarceration, recidivism rates have remained high with more than 40 percent of released federal offenders returning to prison within three years.

The proposed SAFE Justice Act is the result of years of efforts to identify, compile, and bring to the national level the best, evidence-based practices in criminal justice reform.

These more effective practices include (1) reducing over-criminalization by changing sentencing policies and enhancing the use of sentencing alternatives; (2) focusing federal prison resources on the most violent, career criminals; (3) reducing recidivism through efforts like expanding earned time; (4) increasing government accountability and transparency; and (5) reinvesting the bill’s savings into resources that law enforcement officers need to do their jobs.

Currently, the federal prison system consumes more than 25 percent of the entire Department of Justice budget, limiting the funds available for other public safety priorities.  Through targeted reform, we are convinced that we can reinvest the savings that this legislation would achieve into efforts that strengthen public safety.

To better understand why advocates for reform have reached these conclusions, consider some of the judicial conclusions about mandatory minimum penalties offered by Chief Judge Patti B. Saris for the Federal District of Massachusetts, Chair of the United States Sentencing Commission, during her congressional testimony last year.

 Drug offenders make up about a third of the defendants who are convicted and sentenced federally every year — and a majority of the prisoners serving in Federal Bureau of Prisons facilities.

 Mandatory minimum penalties for these offenses have contributed significantly to the staggering growth in the federal prison population.

 Existing mandatory minimum penalties, moreover, are being unevenly applied, leading to consequences far different from those that Congress intended.  For example, in the drug crime context, statutory mandatory minimum penalties are often applied to lower-level offenders rather than being limited to the major drug traffickers whom the Congress intended to target.

 Mandatory minimum penalties also impact demographic groups differently, with Black and Hispanic offenders constituting the large majority of offenders subject to mandatory minimum penalties and Black offenders being eligible for relief from those penalties far less often than are other groups.

These facts are why the bipartisan federal Sentencing Commission has unanimously recommended statutory changes to reduce and more effectively target mandatory minimum penalties for drug trafficking, concluding that we should allow sentences below mandatory minimum penalties for non-violent, low-level drug offenders.

Furthermore, the Commission has recommended that federal law should permit retroactive applications by prisoners in the federal system to reduce the sentencing disparity in the treatment of crack and powder cocaine convictions.   Its analysis of recidivism data following the early release of offenders convicted of crack cocaine offenses has shown that reducing these drug sentences would not lead to any increased propensity to reoffend.

At the federal level, I remain committed to addressing the plague of illicit drugs in our society with policies that are firm, humane and cost-effective.  Yet, neither the public’s safety nor the federal budget is well-served by consigning more than 215,000 Americans to decades behind bars.

Congressman Elijah Cummings represents Maryland’s 7th Congressional District in the United States House of Representatives.

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