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10 February 2010

National Criminal Justice Commission Act (S.714)

This Senate Bill is designed to overhaul the current American penal system. Since its introduction in March 2009, the bill has garnered the bi-partisan support of 35 Senators and a broad array of organizations from across the political spectrum, including Human Rights Watch, American Jail Association, Prison Fellowship, American Society of Criminology, the Criminal Justice Section of the American Bar Association, and many other stakeholders.

If S.714 is passed into law, the National Criminal Justice Commission will be created. This commission will be comprised of experts from a diverse range of relevant fields, including criminal justice, law enforcement, public heath, national security, prison administration, social services, prisoner reentry, and victims' rights. Commissioners will be tasked with proposing tangible, wide-ranging recommendations for changes in oversight, policies, practices, and laws designed to prevent, deter, and reduce crime and violence, improve cost-effectiveness, and ensure the interests of justice.

So why is this law neccessary? Here are eight reasons why:

  1. The United States has the highest rate of incarceration on the planet. We currently have roughly 5% of the world's population, yet our country contains 25% of the world's reported inmates. More than 2.3 million Americans are now serving time in prison. Another 5 million are on probation or parole.

  2. During the past 20 years, our prison population has skyrocketed. More and more people have been incarcerated for non-violent acts driven by mental health related issues and/or drug dependence.

  3. Despite the economic crisis, the cost of our current penal system continues to grow exponentially. Many of those incarcerated are repeat offenders. Thus, true rehabilitation could ease this financial burden on the taxpayer.

  4. We currently lock up people who do not necessarily belong in prison, using valuable corrections resources that could be used against serious perpetuators of violent crime.

  5. Transnational criminal activity has increased in the United States and resources need to be devoted to fighting this problem.

  6. The incarceration of illegal drug users has done nothing to curb drug usage. This is a multi-billion dollar industry that has been largely unscathed. Despite the billions spent to combat the illegal drug industry, these drugs still reach our streets.

  7. Incarceration of for drug crimes has had a disproportionate impact on minority communities, despite virtually identical levels of drug use across racial and ethnic lines.

  8. It is extremely difficult for released inmates to become fully functioning members of society since post-incarceration re-entry programs either do not exist or are haphazard. This leads to repeat offenders and an undermining of public safety. Furthermore, the euphemism for prisons across the country is Department of Corrections. If we are to imply that prison corrects problems, then we need to ensure that rehabilitation has occurred when prisoners have completed their sentence.

What can you do to help? This bill is currently before the Senate Judiciary Committee. If a Senator from your state serves on this committee, write to him/her and ask for support for this important initiative.