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A Path Forward to Criminal Justice Policy that Keeps us Safe and Reflects our Values

Jennifer Bellamy,
Senior Legislative Counsel
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October 18, 2011

Today, there are over 2.3 million men and women in prisons throughout the United States. We incarcerate more of our population than any country in the world, and the increased incarceration of offenders with drug offenses represents the most significant source of growth. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, our government spends nearly $69 billion on our correctional system alone.

While everyone agrees that government must not compromise when it comes to preserving public safety, the fact remains that many people are incarcerated for non-violent, low-level offenses and could be held accountable using alternatives that are not only less costly, but also more effective.

Take the case of Hamedah Hasan, who when 21 years old found herself in an incredibly abusive relationship with a man in Portland, Oregon. She moved hundreds of miles away to Omaha, Nebraska hoping to escape her violent ex-boyfriend. But the cousin that she moved in with was dealing crack cocaine and asked her to run errands and wire money. Under drug conspiracy laws she was sentenced to 27 years in prison.

Even the judge who sentenced Hasan recognized the unfairness of the sentence imposed, writing in a letter to the Department of Justice Pardon Attorney’s Office, “I can say, without equivocation, that Ms. Hasan is deserving of the President’s mercy. I have never supported such a request in the past, and I doubt that I will support another one in the future. That said, in this unique case, justice truly cries out for relief.” Hamedah remains in prison, along with countless other people being warehoused for far too long in the federal system — at skyrocketing costs to taxpayers — because of unfair sentencing policies.

Today, Sen. Jim Webb filed an amendment to the Senate’s Commerce, Justice, Science and Related Agencies Appropriations Act that would create a bipartisan commission tasked with examining our nation’s criminal justice system and offering reform recommendations in a number of important areas including rates of incarceration, law enforcement, substance abuse treatment, and reentry policies.

The idea of a national criminal justice commission has gained bipartisan support in Congress as well as support from a range of stakeholder groups representing law enforcement, state and local governments. Supporters of this amendment include prominent law enforcement organizations, such as the National Fraternal Order of Police, the National Sheriffs’ Association, International Association of Chiefs of Police, the National Narcotics Officer’s Associations’ Coalition, and the International Union of Police Associations, as well as state and local government organizations, such as the U.S. Conference of Mayors, the National Criminal Justice Association, and National Association of Counties, and the National League of Cities. Additionally, over 150 civil rights, criminal justice, community-based, and faith-based organizations have expressed their support for the adoption of this amendment.

A bipartisan national criminal justice commission will create the political space for policy makers to engage in frank and thoughtful dialogue about the significant shortcomings of our current system. It is an important first step toward creating criminal justice policy that not only keeps us safe but also reflects our values.

You can help. Tell the Senate to adopt meaningful criminal justice reform now.

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