Fixing a Broken Justice System
Our criminal justice system is broken. Our nation’s laws should focus on imprisoning the most dangerous and violent members of our society. Instead, our criminal justice system traps non-violent offenders – disproportionately African-American men – in a cycle of poverty, unemployment and incarceration. For far too long, elected officials in both parties have sought to appear tough on crime by imposing harsh mandatory minimum sentences at the federal level, even for minor non-violent offenses.
More times than naught, non-violent ex-offenders face daunting obstacles when trying to successfully rejoin society after serving their time. Many find that employers don’t want to hire them once they have been released from prison, and in several states they are also stripped of their right to vote.
In addition to the steep costs imposed on these individuals, the financial cost to the American taxpayer has skyrocketed as well. Our nation’s federal prison population has ballooned to three times what it was in 1991, and Congressional appropriations for federal Bureau of Prisons operations in fiscal year 2014 totaled a staggering $6.86 billion.
I have responded to these challenges by introducing several pieces of legislation that would reform some of the more troubling aspects of the criminal justice system for non-violent ex-offenders.
On April 29th, 2015, I introduced the Reclassification to Ensure Smarter and Equal Treatment Act (the RESET Act) of 2015 with Senator Brian Schatz (D-HI). This bill reclassifies certain low-level felonies as misdemeanors, including simple possession of drugs. It also eliminates the crack-cocaine distinction which has had a proven racially disparate impact. It also requires that all savings derived from the reduction in prisoners be sent to to the General Treasury to reduce our national debt and to the Federal Crime Victim Assistance Fund. The RESET Act will reduce racial disparities in our sentencing laws and push our criminal laws to focus on violent crime, rather than non-violent drug offenses.
On May 21st, 2015, I introduced S. 1441, the Stop Militarizing Law Enforcement Act, with Senator Brian Schatz (D-HI). This bill bans the Department of Defense from transferring military-grade equipment to local and state police officers – including Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected Vehicles, drones, and explosive ordinance. We must ensure that police have the right equipment to protect our communities but we must also ensure that equipment that was designed for the battlefield is not used for civilian purposes.
On March 26th, 2015, I signed on as an original co-sponsor to the first body camera introduced in the United States Senate – the Police Creating Accountability by Making Effective Recording Available Act (the Police CAMERA Act) of 2015. Introduced by Senator Brian Schatz (D-HI) with the consultation of multiple police departments across the country, this bill creates a funding program through the DOJ to help police departments purchase body cameras. It also requires officers who accept funding to follow privacy and transparency guidelines to be developed with the communities that they serve. Body cameras are an important tool for law enforcement and this legislation will ensure that grantees will use them in a manner that will strengthen the relationship between law enforcement and the communities they serve.
On Feb. 2, 2015, I introduced S. 353, the Justice Safety Valve Act, along with Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-VT). The Justice Safety Valve Act is a bill that would allow judges greater flexibility in determining appropriate punishments for certain non-violent federal crimes that carry a mandatory minimum sentence. Judges would be required to provide notice to all parties and to state, in writing, the reasons justifying the alternative sentence. By giving judges greater flexibility, they will not be forced to administer needlessly long sentences for non-violent offenses where they may not be warranted.
Additionally, on March 9, 2015, Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ) and I introduced S. 675, the Record Expungement Designed to Enhanced Employment Act (the REDEEM Act) of 2014. The REDEEM Act is designed to: 1) offer a path to sealing the federal criminal records of non-violent adult offenders; 2) allow for the sealing and expungement of juvenile non-violent criminal records under certain circumstances, and; 3) restrict the use of juvenile solitary confinement.
Likewise, on February 11, 2015, I partnered with Senator Harry Reid (D-NV) to introduce S. 457, the Civil Rights Voting Restoration Act. This bill would restore the right to vote in federal elections for all non-violent felons who have completed their sentence.
On January 26, 2015, I introduced S. 255, the Fifth Amendment Integrity Restoration Act (the FAIR Act). This legislation is designed to protect the rights of innocent property owners by reforming civil asset forfeiture procedures. The FAIR Act would reestablish the principle that a property owner is innocent until proven guilty by requiring the government to prove that a property owner in a forfeiture case either intentionally used or knowingly gave another person consent to use their property in the commission of a crime, or was willfully blind to the criminal activity. Furthermore, the FAIR Act would eliminate the federal "equitable sharing" program and ensure forfeited assets are deposited in the U.S. Treasury's General Fund, rather than returned to law enforcement agencies. Law enforcement seizures should be motivated by public safety, not financial rewards.
The bottom line is that our criminal justice system and its treatment of non-violent ex-offenders is in dire need of reform, and it is well past time for the Congress to address these problems. The bills I have championed – S. 255, S. 353, S. 457 and S. 675 – have all been referred to the Senate Judiciary Committee, where they await further consideration. As your Senator, I am dedicated to creating a fairer criminal justice system for all our citizens and each of these bills will bring our country closer to that goal.