One of the few issues drawing bipartisan collaboration in Congress is the pursuit of criminal justice reform, and one of the leading advocates for change says the legislation seems to be developing along conservative principles.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, is teaming up with Cory Booker, D-N.J., and Richard Durbin, D-Ill., to push the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act. Experts say the momentum at the federal level is due to successes witnessed in multiple states.
“At the state level, we’ve seen this brewing for quite some time, starting with Texas in 2007. What was able to be accomplished there was simply improving public safety while also saving money. These types of reforms, with conservative principles at play here, are now being used in other states. You’re looking at South Carolina and Georgia and several others. Folks in Washington have finally taken notice,” said Joe Luppino-Esposito of Right on Crime and the Center for Effective Justice at the Texas Public Policy Foundation.
He said federal lawmakers are smart to follow the lead of the states that are proving this type of reform can be done effectively.
“It’s very important that we look at how things are done in the states,” Luppino-Esposito said. “These are conservative states, red states, Southern states that have been doing these reforms that really look at the whole system and don’t just say we’re going to move some numbers around and move some prisoners around.”
Luppino-Esposito said effective reform must have a few key components.
“We want to ensure that public safety is there,” he said. “This is not just a release every other prisoner scheme, and that’s not what’s been proposed luckily. We also want to make sure that victims are supported here as well, that they are not left out of the process. Finally, we want to make sure that there’s clear fiscal responsibility.”
Listen to the WND/Radio America interview with Joe Luppino-Esposito:
Public safety is the top goal, and Luppino-Esposito said that should give reformers incentive to do everything possible to prevent prisoners from committing crimes once they’re free.
“This (Senate) legislation specifically focuses on recidivism rates as what is really most important,” Luppino-Esposito said. “We want to make sure people are doing their time for the crimes they’ve committed. Once they are released, because most people that are incarcerated are eventually released, there has to be a way to ensure that they do not go back to a criminal life.”
He said there are three critical areas to make recidivism an ugly option for ex-convicts. First, he said the original sentencing process needs to be examined.
“We’re looking at people coming in and what they’re being sentenced for and to what levels. What we’re trying to do here is figure out what the good number is for what people should be put away in prison for. It’s not going to be some indefinite period of time,” Luppino-Esposito explained. “It’s going to be a set amount of time, and we need to understand where they fall in the organization if it’s a drug offense or whatever the case may be.”
Next, he said, is making prisoners’ time in custody lead to a better life once they’re released.
“Once they’re behind the wall, they can earn good time credits. They can take GED classes. They can do things to help them not wind up committing crime again,” Luppino-Esposito said.
Then comes the all-important re-entry into public.
“Finally, we want to talk about how they are eventually released back into society once they’ve done their time,” he said. “Doing that, making sure there are halfway houses and proper programming for that will ensure public safety because we’re not just going to take someone who might have been in a cell for several hours a day and release them back into a neighborhood.”
Luppino-Esposito stresses this approach is far different than with President Obama and the Justice Department are doing through retroactive changes to sentencing guidelines for what they call nonviolent drug offenders. He said that just amounts to shaving a couple of years off the average drug-related sentence.
While he likes the bulk of the Senate bill, Luppino-Esposito would like to see more provisions that protect Americans who are innocent or have no criminal intent, namely crackdowns against civil asset forfeiture and application of mens rea, which requires evidence of criminal motives.
Luppino-Esposito said civil asset forfeiture is a scourge against freedom.
“Based simply on suspicion of some sort of criminal activity, your money and assets can be seized. Your car can be seized. Mind you, this doesn’t even mean you need to be charged with a crime,” said Luppino-Esposito, who noted that once police have Americans’ property, it can be very expensive and time-consuming to get it back after being cleared.
As for mens rea, he believes motive is a critical factor for police and prosecutors to consider since some people have no idea they are breaking the law.
“You may be accused of a crime, but you did not actually have the intent to commit a crime,” Luppino-Esposito said. “With somewhere around 5,500 or more criminal statutory offenses on the books plus a completely incalculable number of federal regulations that go back to criminal penalties, this is a major, major problem for a lot of people.”
He added, “They’re getting into the system for things other than drugs like fishing or some other quirks in the regulatory schemes. That is something I hope can get into the federal legislation and fix that for the future.”