Senate Judiciary Committee Approves Bill to Create Commission to Study Criminal Justice System

Justice Reform 01.22,10

The Senate Judiciary Committee approved a bill with substantial bipartisan support yesterday to establish a national commission that will undertake a comprehensive review and recommend key reforms to all areas of the criminal justice system. 

The commission’s mandate under the National Criminal Justice Commission Act of 2010 is to recommend ways to reduce incarceration rates, reform our nation’s drug laws, identify meaningful prisoner re-entry programs, contain costs, improve treatment for the mentally ill, and restore public confidence in the system.  After 18 months the 14-member commission would be required to submit its conclusions and recommendations to Congress and the president.

“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,” said the bill’s chief sponsor Senator Jim Webb, D. Va. “We are wasting billions of dollars and diminishing millions of lives.”  

Despite only being home to less than 5 percent of the world’s population, the U.S. has a nearly a quarter of the globe’s inmate population with 2.3 million people behind bars, thereby earning the dubious distinction of being the most incarcerated nation in the world. 

About 7.3 million, or one in every 31 U.S. adults is in prison, on parole or on probation, according to a Pew Center on States study. That figure is disproportionately higher among people of color – one in 27 Latinos and one in 11 Black adults are under correctional supervision. Twenty-five years ago, the rate for all adults was 1 in 77 nationwide.  

State budgets have seen a surge in corrections spending crowding out other priorities, such as investing in higher education. State spending from general funds on corrections increased from $10.6 billion in 1987 to more than $44 billion in 2007, a 127 percent increase in inflation-adjusted dollars. During the same period, adjusted spending on higher education increased only 21 percent.

Public confidence in the legal system has also waned. A Pew poll found 20 percent of Whites saying they had “just some or very little confidence” in the legal system compared to 36 and 37 percent for Latinos and African Americans, respectively.

The bill now awaits a vote from the full Senate. There is no companion bill in the House of Representatives yet.