Marking the 50th anniversary of a wide-ranging report of a commission named by President Lyndon B. Johnson, some experts call for a 21st-century repeat, focusing on police, prosecutors, and mass incarceration. But some speakers at a Washington symposium worried the new administration’s “tough on crime” approach could limit its impact.
Congress should create a national criminal justice commission, both to suggest improvements in the justice system and to highlight successful programs that can be replicated around the U.S., says U.S. Representative Jamie Raskin (D-MD).
Raskin spoke on Friday at a conference sponsored by the George Washington University Law School in Washington, D.C., to mark the 50th anniversary of the report of a Commission on Law Enforcement and Administration of Justice appointed by President Lyndon B. Johnson.
Raskin is a co-sponsor of a bill pending in the House to create a new national commission. Versions of bill have also been filed in the Senate, and are likely to be considered as part of a broader sentencing-reform bill.
Recent experiences of states that have enacted justice-reform measures could help guide a national panel, Raskin suggested. Raskin served as a state senator in Maryland last year when that state’s legislature passed a “justice reinvestment” law that is aimed at reducing the state’s population and spending the money saved on crime prevention.
The Maryland bill dealt with other issues like restoring convicted people’s right to vote that could be considered by a national commission, Raskin said. A national commission would produce a set of recommendations to states but could not require them to take action.
A coalition of liberal Democrats and libertarian conservatives could reach agreement on many criminal justice issues, as they have on in other areas, Raskin said.
Overall, a new commission would “generate a public agenda” on criminal justice, a problem that should be more more prominent in public discussion, Raskin said.
The symposium was sponsored by the university’s student law review, which will publish papers presented by criminal-justice experts on policing, prosecution and other issues.
The event featured a panel discussion involving people who worked on the staff of the LBJ-era commission in the 1960s. That panel spent about two years researching a long list of problems before issuing a report in 1967 that included more than 200 recommendations.
Sheldon Krantz of the Georgetown University law faculty said a principal accomplishment of the 1960s commission was to call for many changes in the then “primitive” system of U.S. policing, which included many officers with little eduction and training.
The commission offered a “blueprint for policing in the U.S.” that served as the “genesis” for the community-policing movement that remains widespread today, Krantz said.
The LBJ commission also led to decades of federal support for crime and justice research and for other justice system improvements, he said.
Elizabeth Bartholet, a Harvard law professor and also a staff member of the original commission, said the panel did not anticipate the huge expansion of U.S. prisoners. There were fewer than 200,000 inmates in the U.S. when the commission issues its report 50 years ago, compared with more than 2 million now.
Several panelists expressed doubt that a new commission could accomplish as much as did the 1960s panel. They cited deep-seated ideological divisions in Washington as well as the “tough on crime” stance of President Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
At the conference, Rep. Bobby Scott (D-VA), long a congressional leader on crime issues, said that he and Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R-WI), soon would reintroduce the Safe, Accountable, Fair, and Effective (SAFE) Justice Act that failed to be considered in the last session of Congress.
The measure would aim to reduce recidivism in the federal justice system by providing more incentives for inmates to complete “evidence-based prison programming,” concentrate the use of prison space on violent and career criminals, increase the use of evidence-based sentencing alternatives, and curtailing “overcriminalization” by ensuring that fiscal impact statements are attached to all sentencing and corrections proposals.
Scott lamented that while many politicians continue to utter “slogans and sound bites” to combat crime, Congress has failed for many years to pass a long-overdue reauthorization of the federal law that provides aid to states to fight juvenile crime. Objections by a few senators to one section of the bill, which has been approved by the House, are responsible for the delay.
Other speakers at the symposium spoke about a variety of issues that could be considered by a new criminal justice commission.
The LBJ commission is credited with popularizing for the first time the concept of a criminal justice system in the U.S., but Edward Chung of the Center for American Progress said a major issue today is that there still is not a coherent system in many areas.
Chung pointed out that major actors in the system are police chiefs who are appointed by mayors, and county sheriffs and prosecutors, both who run for election, and judges, who may be appointed or elected.
Because these officials have their own constituencies and often disagree on key questions, the justice system may not function effectively, he said.
In Chung’s view, future justice reform efforts should focus on policing, because police officers greatly influence the front end of the system by deciding who is arrested.
A panel on prosecutors suggested focusing on those officials, who “control the criminal justice system,” given that 95 percent of criminal cases end in plea bargains, said American University law Prof. Angela Davis.
Davis contended that “prosecutors have an ethical duty to end mass incarceration,” arguing that everyone who commits a crime doesn’t need to end up being bars. There are other ways to hold people accountable,” she said.
Law Prof. Adam Gershowitz of William and Mary Law School suggested that police officers consult prosecutors before making arrests, to reduce the number of cases that end up being thrown out for lack of proper evidence.
Columbia University law Prof. Daniel Richman echoed the call for more cooperation between prosecutors and police, citing the declining rates of murders being solved by police in many cities.
“Let’s solve the homicides and get the bad guys in jail,” Richman said.
Nkechi Taifa of the Open Society Foundations complained about what she called unnecessarily long prison sentences for many crimes.
Several speakers cited Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ directing federal prosecutors to seek the harshest possible charges against defendants and abandoning some “smart on crime” programs of the Obama administration.
“We seem to be slipping back to being ‘dumb on crime,’ ” Taifa said.
Ted Gest is President of Criminal Justice Journalists and Washington Bureau Chief of The Crime Report. Readers’ comments are welcomed.