August 8, 2013
Prisons in the United States are something of a disaster—both in terms of justice and the budget.
So, what can be done? Two bipartisan members of Congress recently put forward an idea: Change the name of the Bureau of Prisons to the Bureau of Corrections.
Those members—Reps. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, and Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y.—introduced H.R. 2984 just before August recess. In introducing the bill, Chaffetz said:
This small change will help the bureau remember that its mission is not just to house people, but also to rehabilitate prisoners such that they are productive members of society when released.
Jeffries called it "an important step in the right direction toward fundamentally changing our approach to rehabilitation and successful reentry into society."
It also, of course, would do little to help prison overcrowding, sentencing laws that are racially imbalanced, and the rapid growth of a private prison industry that has been plagued with problems. It also wouldn't help the huge price tag for the federal government.
That's where the bipartisan House Judiciary Committee's Over-Criminalization Task Force is trying to step in. The task force, which was approved by a voice vote in May and began work in June, is authorized through the end of the year. The group's goal is "to assess our current federal criminal statutes and make recommendations for improvements." Its stated intention is to cut down the estimated 4,500 federal crimes in the U.S. code.
The task force has already generated some bipartisan praise. An American Civil Liberties Union spokesman said, "The task force has a unique opportunity for meaningful reform of our federal criminal system" and that the ACLU hopes "it prioritizes restoring fairness to the criminal justice system." The conservative Heritage Foundation called the task force "a definite step in the right direction."
And the task force isn't the only meaningful congressional activity. In March, Sens. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., and Rand Paul, R-Ky., introduced legislation that would give judges more discretion in sentencing federal crimes. A version of that bill is also under consideration in the House. Outside of Congress, the Justice Department pushed for sentencing reform in a July letter to the U.S. Sentencing Commission.
It, of course, remains to be seen whether Congress will actually be able to get anything accomplished. And this Congress has a particularly lousy track record on that count. But with the criminal justice system nearly tearing apart at its seams, there appears to be real, bipartisan energy behind actually getting something done. Even if it's just changing a name.
August 8, 2013