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Step By Step in Fixing a Broken Criminal Justice System

Ian S. Thompson,
Senior Legislative Advocate,
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January 21, 2010

Earlier today, the Senate Judiciary Committee voted in favor of establishing a bipartisan “blue-ribbon” commission to be tasked with performing a top-to-bottom examination of the nation’s broken, dysfunctional criminal justice system and offering reform recommendations.

The legislation, the National Criminal Justice Commission Act, was originally introduced by Sen. Jim Webb of Virginia and is currently co-sponsored by 35 members of the Senate, both Democrats and Republicans.

Carrying out a top-to-bottom review of the criminal justice system is a critical step in the process of fixing, what is for far too many Americans, a totally broken system.The U.S. currently has the dubious distinction of being, by far, the world’s largest incarcerator, both in sheer numbers and in terms of percentage of the population.More than one in every 100 adults is currently in prison or jail in this country, and the number of women in state and federal prisons and jails increased by more than 800 percent between 1980 and 2002.

Did all of this happen because Americans are the most violent, crime-prone people anywhere in the world?Of course not.Our massive rate of over-incarceration is the direct result of changes to sentencing policy and prosecution priorities that have put more and more people behind bars and for far longer periods than ever before.

One of the most important things this new commission could do is explore whether these policies, which have fueled record rates of incarceration, have been worth the cost in both financial resources and human lives. Additionally, they would be wise to consider whether less punitive and costly alternatives could better be employed.Time will tell, as Congress must still pass this legislation and then send it on to President Obama to become reality.

In the meantime, today’s vote by the Senate Judiciary Committee offers some hope that Congress is beginning to seriously explore reforms to the nation’s criminal justice system.

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