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March 29, 2009 -- Talk Left (US)

On Sen. Webb's Bill Studying Criminal Justice Reform

By Jeralyn,Merritt, criminal defense attorney in Denver, CO

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive


Senator Jim Webb introduced the National Criminal Justice Act of 2009 on Friday. It would create a bipartisan commission to study the criminal justice and prison systems for 18 months, after which it would make recommendations.

Lots of people are excited about it, from FAMM to Glenn Greenwald.

I think we know the answers already and I wish we would start making the reforms now, not starting an 18 month period of study followed by recommendations. I'm concerned this will just put tempt Congress to put reform bills on the back burner, using Webb's Commission as an excuse for delay. "Let's wait until the report comes out before making any changes."

I'm also disappointed that the make-up of the non-congressional members of the Commission fails to include anyone from the criminal defense community -- it's law enforcement, criminal justice, victims' advocates ... same old song.

Here's the list:

(1) QUALIFICATIONS.-The individuals appointed from private life as members of the Commission shall be individuals who are nationally recognized for expertise, knowledge, or experience in such relevant areas as-

(A) law enforcement;
(B) criminal justice;
[C]; national security;
(D) prison administration;
(E) prisoner reentry;
(F) public health, including drug addiction
and mental health;
(G) victims' rights; and
(H) social services

What are we? Chopped liver? How can you have a commission that studies the criminal justice system and the treatment and over-incarceration of offenders and not include their representatives, their champions, the people who spend so much time with them, individually and as a whole, both in jails and prisons and out?

("Criminal justice" for those not familiar with the term, historically has referred to law enforcement-oriented programs and policies. It does not include criminal defense. The primary focus of criminal justice in the United States is on policing skills and police science with some emphasis in recent years on adding social sciences like sociology and psychology to study social deviance.)

And how about judges? Shouldn't a few of them be included on the commission?

So, yes, Sen. Webb's bill is nice, but (1) 18 months is too long when we already know what needs to be done (2) It's only going to provide recommendations, none of which are binding and (3) it fails to include representatives who speak for the accused and convicted and who face the injustices day in and day out in courtrooms across the country.

Too often, a period of study is used as a cop-out to avoid action. I'm sure Sen. Webb has only the best intentions, but with a prison population exceeding 2 million and 1 in every 31 Americans now in custody or under supervision (probation or parole) it's time to act. The research and data are out there. I agree with Sen. Webb that:

America's criminal justice system has deteriorated to the point that it is a national disgrace. Its irregularities and inequities cut against the notion that we are a society founded on fundamental fairness. Our failure to address this problem has caused the nation's prisons to burst their seams with massive overcrowding, even as our neighborhoods have become more dangerous. We are wasting billions of dollars and diminishing millions of lives. We need to fix the system.

Why not just do it?

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