The last time the federal criminal justice system underwent major reform was more than 40 years ago. A broad coalition of organizations, ranging from the American Civil Liberties Union to the Heritage Foundation, today agreed that the time has come for another overhaul.
With budget cuts on one hand and the expansion of codified crimes and prison populations on the other, among many other problems, the system is "in dire straits," said Christopher Durocher of the bipartisan Constitution Project during a telephone conference call this morning. The project convened what is called the Smart on Crime Coalition to issue a comprehensive report recommending reforms ranging from mandatory recording of police interrogations to ensuring the adequacy of indigent defense and eradicating prison rape. The report also calls for expanding aid to crime victims, improving access to DNA for innocence claims, boosting the "re-entry" prospects of those who have served their time in prison, and increased use of the presidential pardon and clemency powers.
Not all groups signed on to all recommendations, but the conservative Heritage Foundation, for one, found common ground with the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers on the over-criminalization of federal law, with more than 4,400 criminal offenses contained in the U.S. Code. Often the laws are "overly broad and vaguely defined," said Heritage's Brian Walsh. NACDL executive director Norman Reimer said in a written statement, “Overcriminalization of federal law threatens every American’s liberty and drains the public coffers with pointless prosecutions and unnecessary incarcerations.”
Today's report notes that since the coalition issued a similar set of recommendations at the beginning of the Obama administration in 2009, "too little has been accomplished." But with the need for reform only increasing, the group reconvened and updated the recommendations. The effort took on extra urgency in the wake of this week's announcement by Sen. Jim Webb (D-Va.) that he is re-introducing a bill calling for creation of a national commission to undertake a "top to bottom" review of criminal justice. Webb, who has led the call for reforming the criminal justice system in recent years, announced Wednesday that he would not seek re-election.
“The criminal justice system is supposed to be about justice -- for victims, for those rightly and wrongly accused and convicted of crimes, and for all of us," said Virginia Sloan, president of The Constitution Project today. "But a system that costs too much and makes so many mistakes provides justice for no one."