Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) said the U.S. criminal justice system is the “envy of the world” but politicians have a duty to make it better.
“For all of our criminal justice system’s ills, it is still the envy of most countries on the planet and that gives those of us in government a solemn obligation to improve it to keep it the best,” Whitehouse said at an event held by the Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the U.S. Senate and the Coalition for Public Safety.
“We have learned enough in recent years a matter of policy to understand that there were mistakes made and that they need to be corrected and that it’s a very high obligation of ours to correct them. In this case, the lesson is that the corrections will work to everybody’s benefit as well,” he added.
According to Whitehouse, Rhode Island has seen a 9 percent reduction in crime and a 7 percent drop in incarceration after its last prison reforms went into effect.
Whitehouse, a former attorney general, was part of the discussion on criminal justice reform along with Sens. Mike Lee (R-Utah), John Cornyn (R-Texas) and Cory Booker (D-N.J.).
Both Cornyn and Whitehouse have introduced a criminal justice reform bill, which is aimed at lowering incarceration rates for individuals that participate in certain programs including rehabilitation and job training.
“If you are sincere about trying to improve your standing so you are more likely to succeed when you return to your community, we should reward that,” Whitehouse said.
Cornyn said sentencing modifications should be done on a case-by-case basis as opposed to making general changes.
“It’s a little trickier in my view because I think we need to keep in mind that justice depends on an individual basis and you can’t do it in an assembly line or make massive generalizations and say ‘everybody is going to get this, everybody is going to get that,’ that’s been part of the problem,” he said.
Lee told the audience he vowed to tackle criminal justice reform when he took office in 2011. Lee specifically mentioned the importance of better matching sentences with the severity of an offense to make the system more “humane” and “effective.”
“When we stretch out the resources through extensive sentences, we run the risk of ignoring other aspects of our criminal justice system that if property implemented could make all of us safer,” Lee, former assistant U.S. attorney for the district of Utah, said.
Lee also said one of the reasons there has been nearly a tenfold increase in the federal criminal population since 1980 is the nation has “over-criminalized” federal law.
“I think we need to come to terms with the fact that there are good reasons why, traditionally, historically, we’ve allowed most crimes to be prosecuted at the state level rather than through federal legislation and federal law enforcement agencies,” he said. “A state system isn’t perfect and may have lots of errors but a state system is more easily turned around and we also run the risk when we over-federalize criminal law that we might act disproportionately in some areas relative to a corresponding state law offense.”