Coalition supports Chairman Goodlatte and the House Judiciary Committee’s criminal justice reform efforts
The undersigned organizations and individuals are writing to voice our support for the Sentencing Reform Act (H.R. 3713), the Recidivism Risk Reduction Act (H.R. 759) and the Criminal Code Improvement Act (H.R. 4002). These bills are part of a larger effort spearheaded by Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) and the House Judiciary Committee to enact long overdue reforms in the federal criminal justice system.
Congress does not have to look far to find empirical evidence that criminal justice reform promotes public safety, greater fairness in sentencing, and fiscal conservatism. More than 30 states, including Georgia, Mississippi, Oklahoma, South Carolina and Texas, have enacted and implemented justice reinvestment initiatives focused on rehabilitation and treatment. These state-led reforms have made communities safer by successfully reducing recidivism and saving taxpayers billions of dollars that had been slated for prison expansion and construction costs.
Most importantly, even as prison populations declined, states saw crime rates fall.
Republican states have pioneered these reforms. Red states had to find new and innovative paths to substantively reduce recidivism and reform sentencing policies that were causing prison populations and costs to skyrocket. State policymakers also found that smart reforms strengthened families and entire communities.
The federal government is lagging far behind these state reforms, In 1980, the number of prisoners in the federal corrections system hovered around 25,000. By 2013, that number skyrocketed to more than 219,000. Over the same period, related costs jump from $970 million to $6.7 billion. In FY 2015, the BOP received more than $6.9 billion in funding.
While the federal prison population has dropped to slightly below 200,000 inmates, challenges still remain. As noted by the Department of Justice Inspector General Michael Horowitz, the budgetary growth related to the federal corrections system will continue to climb. According to Horowitz, the Federal Bureau of Prisons’ (BOP) budget grew at “almost twice the rate” of other agencies in under the Department of Justice and now consumes 25 percent of the Department’s discretionary budget. Of federal agencies under the purview of the Department of Justice, only the FBI has a larger budget than the BOP.
The bills unanimously passed by the House Judiciary Committee are an extension of the commonsense reforms that have been passed and implemented in Republican states. Indeed, this is a conservative legacy, and one that Republicans in the House of Representatives should warmly embrace.
The Sentencing Reform Act (H.R. 3713) modifies (but does not eliminate) some mandatory minimum sentences; restores congressional intent for other mandatory minimums; expands the existing federal safety valve exception for low-level, nonviolent offenders; and, creates a second safety valve that allows judges to sentence below a 10-year mandatory minimum under certain carefully-considered conditions.
In addition, the Sentencing Reform Act also makes the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 (which reduced the disparity between powdered cocaine and crack cocaine) retroactive. The benefits of this provision are limited and considered on a case-by-case basis to ensure that violent offenders remain in prison to serve their full sentence.
The Recidivism Risk Reduction Act (H.R. 759) begins incorporating in the federal system the rehabilitative and reentry reforms that have seen tremendous success in the states. As Chairman Chaffetz, the sponsor of H.R. 759, said after the bill was approved by the House Judiciary Committee, “More than 95 percent of people that go to prison will be released. Our collective goal should be to lower the recidivism rates and prepare inmates to integrate back into our communities.”
To accomplish this goal, The Recidivism Risk Reduction Act requires a post-sentencing risk assessment of every federal prisoner to determine whether they are a low, moderate or high risk of becoming a repeat offender. The bill allows prisoners to earn time credits upon the completion of rehabilitative programs (including educational courses, religious services and work training) so they are incentivized to lower their risk of recidivism. This brings greater accountability to our corrections system and helps prevent simply warehousing prisoners.
Prisoners who earn time credits will be eligible to serve the remainder of their sentence in a halfway house, home confinement or under community supervision. Those prisoners who have committed serious or violent felonies are not eligible to earn time credits.
Finally, the Criminal Code Improvement Act (H.R. 4002) would restore the foundational principle of our criminal justice system: namely that no person should lose their liberty unless they commit a criminal act with a “guilty mind” (referred to as “mens rea” by legal scholars). This reform is critical for any just criminal system, but it is especially important today when there are so many federal criminal statutes that the Congressional Research Service can’t even count them.
The best estimate is that there are 4,500 to 5,000 federal criminal statutes and more than 300,000 federal regulations that carry criminal penalties. As Professor John Baker once said, “There is no one in the United States over the age of 18 who cannot be indicted for some federal crime. That is not an exaggeration.”10 Today, it is simply impossible for Americans to have had fair notice or to know what laws they may unwittingly break in any given day. Making matters worse, Congress, in recent years, has had a proclivity for passing criminal laws with either weak mens rea requirements or no mens rea requirement at all.
The Criminal Code Improvement Act would restore due process, fair notice and reverse the epidemic of over-criminalization that is currently haunting federal criminal law.
These three bills are not the only ones that the House of Representatives should consider this year. The undersigned organizations also urge votes on reauthorization of the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act (JJDPA) and the Due Process Act (H.R. 5283), which would reform federal civil asset forfeiture laws.
Adam Brandon, FreedomWorks
Timothy Head,Faith & Freedom Coalition
Grover Norquist, Americans for Tax Reform
Eli Lehrer, R Street Institute
Russell Moore, Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission Southern Baptist Convention
Andrew Clark, Generation Opportunity
Craig DeRoche, Justice Fellowship