Reps. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.) and Bobby Scott (D-Va.) have teamed up on a bill that would reform the federal criminal justice system.
Koch Industries, the American Civil Liberties Union and #cut50, a group co-founded by activist Van Jones, joined the lawmakers during a press event on Capitol Hill.
Sensenbrenner said the Safe, Accountable, Fair, and Effective (SAFE) Justice Act would bring about fairness in sentencing and reduce incarceration costs. He called the current federal corrections system fiscally unsustainable and morally irresponsible.
“We can no longer ignore this pressing issue. We must address our federal sentencing and corrections system now and Mr. Scott and I are today proposing to do that. Over the last past 3 decades, America’s federal prison population has more than quadrupled from 500,000 in 1980 to more than 2.3 million today,” he said.
“Prison spending has increased alongside it, placing a heavy burden on American taxpayers. This increased spending has not improved effectiveness. More than 40 percent of ex-convicts return to prison within 3 years of release. There is a better way.”
According to Scott’s office, the bill “clarifies original congressional intent by examining the role an offender plays in a drug offense and targeting higher-level traffickers for mandatory minimums and recidivist enhancements.” If it the became law, the legislation would also “apply life sentences for drug trafficking only in the most egregious cases.”
Under the bill, eligible criminals could petition for resentencing under new trafficking laws. The bill also clarifies that mandatory minimum gun sentences “can only run consecutively when the offender is a true recidivist.” The bill also requires “sentencing cost analyses” to be released in pre-sentencing reports.
The lawmakers pointed out that that since 1980, federal prison costs have gone from $1 billion to almost $7 billion.
“I want you to know that as a parent this is not just about a fiscal issue for me. This is a moral issue,” said freshman Rep. Mia Love (R-Utah), a co-sponsor of the bill. “I was sent here by Utah’s fourth congressional district to not just promote fiscal responsibility but personal responsibility, to allow people to pull themselves up if they choose and to promote and preserve the Constitution of the United States.”
Rep. Scott Rigell (R-Va.), a co-sponsor, said he has not seen such a diverse group of organizations unite on Capitol Hill.
“I’ve never been in a press conference like this where I’ve seen the diverse level of support. If we think about it, we’ve got the ACLU and we have a representative from the Koch Industries and the Koch Brothers. If you think of those as two gate posts, that’s an awfully wide gate,” he said to laughter from the attendees. “That’s important because I’ve learned that even though you may have a good piece of legislation, getting it through the House floor, we all know how Washington works, it’s extraordinarily difficult.”
Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) reminded supporters of criminal justice reform that a piece of legislation is not enough.
“Come on now, it’s not enough. Bobby Scott will tell you that we all need to be pushing hard on this and giving it everything we’ve got. This is our moment,” he said.