Criminal Justice Reform and Gun Violence

By Joan Neal
August 31, 2015

The country may be reaching a tipping point for criminal justice reform. Both on Capitol Hill and on Pennsylvania Avenue, a steady drumbeat for some kind of reform is likely to reach a crescendo as early as September when Congress returns from their August recess.

The House Judiciary Committee, chaired by Representative Robert Goodlatte (R-VA), took up the issue just before they adjourned in order to address such bills as the Youth Promise Act co-sponsored by Reps. Bobby Scott [D-VA] and Walter Jones [R-NC], the Safe, Accountable, Fair, and Effective (SAFE) Act co-sponsored by Reps. Bobby Scott and James Sensenbrenner [R-WI] and the Smarter Sentencing Act co-sponsored by Reps. Bobby Scott and Raul Labrador [R-ID]. All of these bills have Senate cosponsors as well. Before leaving in August, Chairman Goodlatte announced his plan to introduce bipartisan legislation to the floor of the House, and Speaker John Boehner expressed his commitment to bring such legislation to the full chamber for a vote.

Similar efforts are in the works in the Senate. Sens. Dick Durbin [D-IL] and Mike Lee[R-UT] introduced theSmarter Sentencing Act, which proposes the reduction of some mandatory minimum sentences for low-level drug offenses; the Second Chance Reauthorization Act cosponsored by Sens. Robert Portman [R-OH], Marco Rubio[R-FL], Kelly Ayotte[R-NH] and Patrick Leahy[D-VT]; the Record Expungment Designed to Enhance Employment (REDEEM) Act cosponsored by Sens. Cory Booker [D-NJ] and Rand Paul [R-KY],and the Corrections Oversight, Recidivism Reduction and Eliminating Costs for Taxpayers (Corrections)Actcosponsored by Sens. John Cornyn [R-TX] and Sheldon Whitehouse [D-RI] to reduce the size of the federal inmate population. There are other bills that have been introduced as well. Sen. Chuck Grassley [R-IA], Chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, generally a critic of sentencing reform, has been working with a bipartisan group of senators since early August and is said to be poised to bring a bill that reduces the number of federal prisoners and the cost of running federal prisons, to the full Senate chamber for a vote in September.

President Obama has called for a major overhaul of the federal criminal justice system, commuted the sentences of 47 inmates serving long prison terms for non-violent drug offenses and is said to be prepared to make other changes by executive order.

As unlikely as it may be that this dysfunctional Congress can do anything productive, it seems that the stars might just be aligned to actually pass significant criminal justice reform legislation by the end of this year.

Gun Violence Prevention

Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for gun violence prevention legislation. While Sen. John Cornyn [R-TX] introduced an NRA-endorsed bill to reward states that submit more information to the federal background check system about residents with known mental problems, it is much narrower than the measure expanding background check requirements for private and gun show purchases, which the Republicans and the NRA defeated in 2013. Sadly, nothing more is happening on this issue now nor is it likely to happen during this term.