With a disapproval rating hovering around 80 percent, the 114th Congress is on track to be among the least productive in history. But with the end of a contentious election and the lame-duck session just a week away, there remains an opportunity for the 114th Congress to leave a meaningful mark on history, specifically by passing significant criminal-justice reform.
Somewhat differing versions of reform legislation sit in both the House and Senate, but either one would save taxpayer money, ensure dangerous criminals are locked up and rein in government power – all solid Republican principles. Either version also would provide more equitable sentencing for nonviolent offenders and address abuses of asset-forfeiture rules, concerns that are shared on the political left. Lawmakers from both sides of the aisle should be able to come together to make our communities safer and restore the liberties outlined in our founding documents.
President Obama has shown he is willing to support criminal-justice reform that follows conservative tenants and to act alone with zero input from Congress, as seen in his record-breaking commutations. In the past two weeks alone, the president granted an additional 90 commutations, bringing the total to 688 this year and 872 during his tenure, more than the past 11 presidents combined. Some of these individuals, it should be noted, would be ineligible for release under the pending legislation, because they have a violent criminal history.
Detractors lazily lampoon criminal-justice reform as "soft on crime." Some allege the reform measures would result in illegal aliens being released onto American streets. Not only is this a baseless charge, due to mandatory-detention provisions for most criminal aliens, but it conjures dangerously unprincipled and unconstitutional sentiments.
Nor, as some critics claim, are we in the midst of a crime wave. While there have been recent increases in violent crimes in a few neighborhoods in a few cities, there is no marked increase in crime nationwide. Ironically, the cities that have seen increases in violent crimes tend to be jurisdictions that have eschewed the sort of criminal justice reform that already has passed in a number of states.
The legislation currently before Congress is carefully crafted. It excludes from relief anyone with state or federal violent felony convictions. In fact, the package actually raises punishment for certain firearms offenses, as well as crimes that involve trafficking in fentanyl or heroin. On the other hand it takes an important step toward curbing federal overcriminalization and a balanced approach toward civil asset-forfeiture reform – ensuring all defendants are represented by counsel, raising the standard of proof to clear and convincing evidence and, most importantly, expanding transparency in federal cases.
Maybe the most persuasive reason this legislative package should pass is that it's already been shown to work in the states. Texas led the way with similar reforms, followed by Georgia, Mississippi, South Carolina and Utah. In each state, reforms saved taxpayer money by shrinking the prison population, improved public safety and promoted traditional American ideals, such as strong families and second chances. Texas is continuing its leadership in criminal justice reform by moving the debate to higher echelons of morality, as exemplified with State Sen. Konni Burton, a Republican, remarking, "Human dignity and redemption should be represented in our national dialog on criminal justice."
This sentiment was eloquently echoed by Gov. Matt Bevin, R-Ky., stating: "From the very beginning, America has been a land of second chances. Even so, many in our criminal justice system are not given a path forward to become productive members of society after they have served their time. I believe in the importance of supporting basic human dignity. When we hold individuals fully accountable for their actions while treating them with respect in the process, all of society benefits."
Congress has the opportunity to make modest reforms that have been proven to work, that uphold American traditions and values and that are supported by all corners of the conservative movement. It's time for the 114th Congress to mark its legacy, reassert its equal power to the presidency and to make Congress great, and maybe even relevant, again.
Arthur Rizer is justice policy director and a senior fellow at the R Street Institute. Thinking of submitting an op-ed to the Washington Examiner? Be sure to read our guidelines on submissions.