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Panel Approves Justice Reform Bill

WASHINGTON – After months of inaction, a U.S. Senate panel has approved a comprehensive review of the nation’s criminal justice system, including issues such as the disproportionate share of minorities — particularly African-Americans — in U.S. prisons.

The action by the Senate Judiciary Committee sends the National Criminal Justice Commission Act to the full Senate for a vote later this year. Proposed by Sen. Jim Webb, D-Va., the bill would authorize a blue-ribbon commission of experts who would undertake an 18-month review.

The U.S. has 5 percent of the world’s population but 25 percent of all those in prisons, Webb says. Those released from prison also face multiple barriers to re-entry with few support services, he adds.

The bill, S. 714, would not make any specific policy changes but would initiate a national review of policies toward incarceration, prisoner release, gangs, violent crime and other issues. The measure cleared the Senate committee with bipartisan support.

“We are taking an inclusive, broad-based approach here, and I believe that’s the best way to move our country away from a system based on ideology and fear and toward what is fair and what keeps us safe,” said Webb, who introduced the measure last March. Before the Senate vote, the measure received endorsements from dozens of organizations including the Fraternal Order of Police and the International Association of Chiefs of Police.

At least one committee member said he was not abandoning a ‘get-tough’ stance on crime in voting for the measure.

“I believe strongly in securing tough and appropriate prison sentences for people who break our laws,” said Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., chairman of the Judiciary Committee. “But we must also work to prevent crime and improve the re-entry process to reverse the dangerous cycle of recidivism and violence.”

Webb said he has consulted with more than 100 organizations on the plan, including the NAACP, American Civil Liberties Union, CATO Institute, the Heritage Foundation and the Prison Fellowship.

In proposing the legislation, Webb noted the vast over-representation of African-Americans in the nation’s prisons. While African-Americans are 12 percent of the U.S. population, they represent 37 percent of those arrested for drugs, 54 percent of those with convictions and 74 percent of those sentenced for drug offenses. In some cases, the issue may be securing appropriate legal representation, Webb said.

He also said it is appropriate to discuss fairness issues, particularly the rationale behind long prison terms many face for nonviolent offenses. While violent crime is down 32 percent since 1989, the prison population has “skyrocketed,” he said. In 1980, the U.S. had 41,000 drug offenders in prison; the number of such offenders in prison is now 500,000.

Among other issues, the commission would address topics such as gang violence, resources needed to fight violent crime, strategies to reduce incarceration, the administration of prisons and new or improved systems to integrate ex-offenders into society.

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