U.S. Senate Kills Locally-Backed Criminal Justice Commission

 
An effort seen by some as a move toward a cohesive national strategy for criminal justice policy died last week when U.S. Senate Republicans defeated a bill to create a bipartisan national criminal justice commission. Proposed by Democratic Virginia Senator Jim Webb, the new panel would have conducted an 18-month-long "top to bottom" evaluation of the nation's criminal justice system and offered non-binding recommendations to federal, state and local leaders.

Support for the commission ran high among state and local leaders and won formal endorsements from the U.S. Conference of Mayors, the Fraternal Order of Police and the National Sheriffs' Association. Law enforcement management, labor, and researchers were on board with the commission, "which gives you an idea that a real consensus had been reached since this is normally a pretty contentious group," says Jim Pasco, executive director of the Fraternal Order of Police.

But Republicans Kay Bailey Hutchinson of Texas and Tom Coburn of Oklahoma assailed Webb's commission last Thursday (October 20) as an incursion on states' rights, declaring it unconstitutional for trying to impose federal recommendations on the states. The bill, which needed 60 votes to overcome a Republican filibuster, failed 57-to-43. 

At the local level, supporters regretted the setback.

"I think we could do a better job of dealing with offenders, but there has to be some coordination and cooperation (among the three levels of government)," says Ron Wiborg, legislative counsel for the Minnesota Association of Community Corrections Act Counties. Wiborg sponsored a resolution supporting the commission that was passed by the National Association of Counties membership.

"Changes can be made (at different levels) but it's very difficult without a system-wide identification of issues," says Mitchel Herckis, principal associate at the National League of Cities, which also supported the commission. "We're not talking about a Democrat or Republican consensus, but a federal-state-local consensus for how to make (the criminal justice system) work best," Herckis said.

The commission would have examined federal, state, and local criminal justice systems and suggested changes in "oversight, policies, practices, and laws designed to prevent, deter, and reduce crime and violence, improve cost-effectiveness, and ensure the interests of justice at every step of the criminal justice system," according to a fact sheet on the legislation.

The commission would have specifically addressed the ballooning costs states and localities pay for public safety programs. For instance, in 2009, the annual cost of incarcerating one adult in a California prison was $47,102, according to the state's Legislative Analyst's Office. The National Association of Counties expected the cost savings to counties as a result of the commission's work to be substantial.

State advocates were hoping that the commission would have created a clearinghouse for best practices in criminal justice policy. "When we go to make changes in our state, the first thing we get asked is what are other people's ideas on this, where's the evidence for this strategy," says Pam Rodriguez, vice chair for the Illinois Association for Criminal Justice, which advocates for research-based approaches to reduce recidivism and costs. "If the national commission was to convene, they would have the evidence and we could point there."

Webb says he will continue to push for the commission until he leaves office in 2012, and supporters say they are still eager to see a commission formed. "From our standpoint," Herckis says, "the battle's not over."
 
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