Task Force on Over-Criminalization. In one of the few examples of Republicans and Democrats coming together on a major policy issue in a bipartisan way, members of both parties in the House will look closely at the issue of over criminalization. The U.S. leads the world in the rate of incarceration and the cost has reached over $63 billion per year.
Over criminalization and incarceration has been focused on by House Democrats for years. But recently conservatives, such as former Attorney General Ed Meese, Grover Norquist and Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY), have joined Democrats in voicing concern on the issue. The conversion may mark the beginning of the end of the “law and order” era of conservatism started by Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan in the late 1960.
But some Democrats have been guilty as well. In 1993, the Los Angeles Times wrote about President Clinton making anti-crime legislation a top priority. “Prisons and police are the first line of defense against crime, and “incarceration works,” [then-Attorney General of Calif.] Lungren said. “So now, when we hear the President and many of his colleagues begin voicing eager support for the tough medicine Republicans have advocated for decades, we say: ‘Welcome aboard,'” the paper reported.
As he announced the over criminalization task force today, House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-VA) pointed out that, “there are an estimated 4,500 federal crimes in the U.S. code,” and that, “the number of federal criminal offenses enacted between 2000 and 2007 averaged 56 new crimes a year,” and 500 new crimes per decade.
No one can remember another such task force formed by Congress. Members on the task force indicated the examination will be very thorough and productive and pointed to Chairman Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-WI) as an active player on the issue in the past.
As a result of the war on drugs, three strikes laws and mandatory minimum sentencing America has becoming the number one jailer in the world over the last 30 years. Politicians prone to passing laws that make them look “tough on crime” has also been a culprit.
At the end of 2011, 4,800,000 adults in the U.S. were on probation or on parole with a total of 6,977,700 (3% of the total U.S. pop.) under some sort or correctional supervision and 2.3 million behind bars. In addition, 70,000 juveniles were behind bars in 2011. From 1982 to 2000, California’s prison population increased 500%. In 2011, the California prison system locked up 143,643 prisoners in a state prison system designed to hold 84,000.
Many states have been confronted with the rising costs of incarceration and over the last two years there has been a decrease in state incarceration. But federal incarceration rate has risen every year President Obama has been in office and is now at 218,000. The U.S. continues to lead the the world in the rate of incarceration. President Obama’s FY2014 budget requested more money for federal prisons, one of the largest increases for any federal agency, to a total of $7 billion.
Today, members of the over criminalization task force were asked if they would focus on changes in one of the biggest drivers of incarceration: mandatory minimum sentencing. They said they would. Legislation offered in the Senate by Sens. Pat Leahy (D-VT) and Rand Paul (R-KY) and Reps. Bobby Scott (D-VA) and Rep. Tom Massie (R-KY) in the House would give judges more sentencing discretion on mandatory minimum sentences.
Last month Obama Administration Drug Czar Gil Kerlikowske stressed the Administration’s efforts on another big driver of over incarceration: The war on drugs. Kerlikowske told reporters that drug policy reform, ” looks like a doctor, it looks like a nurse — emphasizing prevention over incarceration, that’s what drug policy reform looks like today.” Though Kerlikowske’s effort and focus are clearly in the direction of treatment over incarceration for drug offenders, the results of his focus has yet to show up in the federal incarceration rate which continues to rise.
Attorney General Eric Holder spoke on over incarceration at Rev. Al Sharpton’s annual National Action Network conference on April 4. Holder said that, “over two million people are currently behind bars in this country. As a nation we are coldly efficient in our incarceration efforts. One in 28 children has a parent in prison. For African American children, this ratio is roughly 1 in 9.” Holder said the total cost of incarceration at $83 billion in 2009.
“As a nation – and as a people – we pay a high price whenever our criminal justice policies fall short of fairly delivering outcomes that deter and punish crime,” Attorney General said. He also mentioned he was “concerned” that, “black male offenders have received sentences that are nearly 20 percent longer than those imposed on white males convicted of similar crimes.” But Holder didn’t focus on the issue of over criminalization during Obama’s first term in office. Many on Capitol Hill were surprised Holder spoke on the issue of over incarceration and race as if they were new problems in the criminal justice system.
Many on the task force stressed that with so many crimes on the books many people who break crime don’t even know they have violated the law so criminal intent could not be present.
“The mens rea (latin for “guilty mind”) issue and the overcrowding of the prisons and the increased costs of prisons and duplication between state and federal criminal codes are things that ought to rise to the top — I think we can reach a bipartisan agreement,” Sensenbrenner told reporters.
“We also need to think about what we can do to turn back some of the duplication between the state criminal laws and federal,” said Rep. John Conyers (D-MI), the most senior member of the House Judiciary Committee.
Members of the task force will be Reps. Sensenbrenner who will be the chair, Reps. Bobby Scott (D-VA), Spencer Bachus, Louie Gohmert (R-TX), Steve Cohen (D-TN), Raul Labrador (R-ID), Rep. George Holding (R-NC), Jerold Nadler (D-NY), Karen Bass (D-CA) and Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY).