Room on the Front Burner
Congress gives prime spot on its agenda to key criminal justice issues
Posted Aug 1, 2009 6:59 PM CDT
By Rhonda McMillion
Criminal justice issues have not been left behind as Congress runs through its busy legislative agenda. The House and Senate are making steady progress on several pieces of legislation that the ABA and other proponents say will help prevent crime and ensure fairness in the handling of criminal offenders.
These are some key criminal justice issues being addressed by the 111th Congress:
• The judiciary committees in both the Senate and the House launched hearings early this year on proposals to eliminate the disparity between sentencing for crack and powder cocaine offenses. Under the current federal sentencing structure, it takes 100 times more powder cocaine than crack to trigger mandatory sentences, even though the drugs are pharmacologically identical. Crack cocaine was long believed to cause a greater degree of violence and addiction, but that myth has been debunked.
Several members of Congress—including Reps. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas; Bobby Scott, D-Va.; and Maxine Waters, D-Calif.—have introduced legislation addressing the cocaine sentencing disparity.
The ABA submitted written statements calling the sentencing disparity “unjustifiable and plainly unjust.” The disparity “has resulted in penalties that sweep too broadly, apply too frequently to lower-level offenders, overstate the seriousness of the offenses, and produce a large racial disparity in sentencing,” said the ABA.
The Obama administration also has joined the effort to change the law. Assistant Attorney General Lanny Breuer testified that Congress’ goal should be to completely eliminate the cocaine sentencing disparity because the current structure “fails to appropriately reflect the differences and similarities between crack and powder cocaine, the offenses involving each form of the drug, and the goal of sentencing serious and major traffickers to significant prison sentences.”
• Bills introduced in the House and Senate would implement a five-year pilot program to address racial and ethnic bias in the criminal justice system. The Justice Integrity Act is sponsored in the House (H.R. 1412) by Rep. Stephen I. Cohen, D-Tenn., and in the Senate (S. 495) by Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin, D-Md. The legislation was drafted with input from the ABA, particularly the Criminal Justice Section and members of the Governmental Affairs Office.
Under the pilot program, U.S. attorneys in 10 districts would form advisory groups to gather data on the presence, cause and extent of racial disparities that may exist at each stage of the criminal justice process. At the end of the five-year period, the Justice Department would submit the findings to Congress along with recommended best practices identified during the program.
• Congress has resumed efforts to reauthorize the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act, which for 30 years has provided crucial protections to youths who come into contact with the juvenile justice system. Some of the ABA’s recommendations to change the act would end the practice of locking up status offenders, such as runaways and truants; require that youths under the age of 18 be held while awaiting trial in facilities for juveniles rather than adult jails; improve conditions at juvenile justice facilities; and reduce disproportionate contact with the justice system among minority youths.
• The proposed Youth Prison Reduction Through Opportunities, Mentoring, Intervention, Support and Education Act would fund programs on evidence-based gang prevention and positive youth development, and bring together communities facing the greatest gang, delinquency and crime challenges through a local council. The bills also would support the hiring and training of youth-oriented policing officers. Chief sponsors of H.R. 1064 are Reps. Scott and Michael Castle, R-Del. The chief sponsors of S. 435 are Sens. Robert P. Casey Jr., D-Pa., and Olympia J. Snowe, R-Maine.
This column is written by the ABA Governmental Affairs Office and discusses ABA advocacy efforts relating to issues being addressed by Congress and the executive branch of the federal government.
Rhonda McMillion is editor of Washington Letter, an ABA Governmental Affairs Office publication.