Overhauling the Criminal Justice System

Oct 19, 2015

Virginia Republican Congressman Bob Goodlatte is pushing bipartisan legislation to overhaul the nation’s criminal justice system. 

Washington is gridlocked, but that doesn’t mean the two parties aren’t working together behind the scenes. For more than a year a bipartisan group of lawmakers have been trying to tackle criminal justice reform. Congressman Goodlatte, who chairs the House Judiciary Committee, says the negotiations were tough, but that in the end they came up with a legitimate compromise.

“We don’t always agree on everything but we do agree that criminal justice reform isn’t a liberal or a conservative issue it’s an American issue.”

The proposal lowers mandatory minimums for low level drug offenders, gives judges more discretion in sentencing and toughens some mandatory minimums for some violent crimes. Goodlatte says the nation needs the bill. 

“We want to make sure our federal laws and regulations effectively and appropriately punish wrong doers, protect individual freedom, safeguard civil liberties work as efficiently and fairly as possible, do not impede state efforts and do not waste tax payer dollars.”

Some critics say Goodlatte’s committee should have done more in addressing the unrest on city streets, like the Black Lives Matter movement. But Goodlatte says they wanted to stay focused.

“But we felt sentence reform would be the best in terms of showing real bipartisanship. So we’ll concentrate on that first. There are tough issue involved. We want to make sure that sentences are fair and just but we also want to make sure that for example we’re not releasing violent criminals back onto out streets and that we’re addressing problems like current surge in overdose deaths.” 

Virginia Democratic Congressman Bobby Scott has been one of the loudest voices in the commonwealth calling for criminal justice reform and he isn’t on board yet with Goodlatte’s bill. He’s pushing his own SAFE Justice Act, which is a comprehensive bill that deals with everything from prevention to early intervention, police training, and body cameras.

“My approach is to look at the evidence not the politics the codifying slogans and sounds bytes of everybody you can get around is the problem that got us where we are now.”

And Scott argues that where the politics has led us is a bad place. 

“Where we lock up a higher proportion of our population than any country on earth to the point where some studies have recently said that we lock up so many people that it’s actually counterproductive you’re messing up so many families, you have so many people with felony records you’re wasting so much money that you’re actually adding to crime than subtracting from it. It will be interesting to see what the net effect of the new legislation will be.”

When it comes to his own SAFE Justice Act, Scott says it’s already been vetted.

“Well we had a yearlong hearing on our bill and heard from liberals and conservatives, researchers, practitioners to see what works and what doesn’t work and on those issue on which there was clear evidence and a consensus we put those in the SAFE Justice Act.”

But President Obama may have clouded the topic of criminal justice reform on the Hill. His administration is moving to release six thousand criminals from prison, which Goodlatte says should have waited until Congress acts.

“But it think the main lesson to learn from that is the congress which has the article one responsibility to legislate in this area as in many others needs to step up and take these measures.”

With President Obama now seen as a lame duck president, analysts think the emerging bipartisan consensus on criminal justice reform makes it one of the last domestic priorities that can become law in the remainder of his time in office.