By William Fisher
Despite the lackluster performance of so-called “Blue Ribbon Commissions” over the years, sponsors of the latest proposal – the National Criminal Justice Commission -- are optimistic that it will become a reality and that its recommendations will be taken seriously by the President, Congress and the American people.
The reason, says its sponsor, Senator Jim Webb, a Democrat from Virginia, is that “America's criminal justice system has deteriorated to the point that it is a national disgrace. Its irregularities and inequities cut against the notion that we are a society founded on fundamental fairness. Our failure to address this problem has caused the nation's prisons to burst their seams with massive overcrowding, even as our neighborhoods have become more dangerous.”
He added, “We are wasting billions of dollars and diminishing millions of lives. We need to fix the system. Doing so will require a major nationwide recalculation of who goes to prison and for how long and of how we address the long-term consequences of incarceration.”
Given the checkered history of Blue Ribbon commissions in the nation’s capital, a spokesman for Sen. Webb told IPS that “with nearly 40 Democratic and Republican cosponsors, there is a strong likelihood of success.”
In the past, Congressionally-appointed commissions are typically set up, staffed, complete their investigative and analytical work, make recommendations that are received by a senior official, a press release is issued, and then the commission’s report is consigned to a shelf where it gathers dust.
Throughout U.S. history, there have been relatively few bodies that have gained the notoriety, media coverage, and attention from Congress and the President as the 9/11 Commission, established in the wake of the terrorist attacks if September 11, 2001. Over time, most of its recommendations were implemented. One reason was the severity of the issue – almost 3,000 deaths. Another was ongoing, well-organized, effective support from the families of the 9/11 victims.
A prison commission has none of those attributes – and prisoners can’t vote. So the political inventive appears minimal.
But the issue is not. Statistics compiled by the Congressional Research Service begin to tell the story:
The United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world, imprisoning a higher percentage of its population than any other country. The American incarceration rate is five times the world's average. A total of 2,380,000 people are now in prison. The U.S. has five percent of the world's population, but 25 percent of the world's prison population.
Minorities make up a disproportionately large share of prison populations. Black males have a 32 percent chance of serving time in prison at some point in their lives; Hispanic males have a 17 percent chance; white males have a 6 percent chance. Extensive racial and ethnic disparities exist today in the American criminal justice system.
African American men and boys are grossly over-represented at every stage of the judicial process. Although African Americans make up just over 12% of the national population, 42% of Americans currently on death row are African American.
African American women have the highest rate of incarceration among women in our nation, a rate four times higher than that of White women.
Initial contacts with police officers are often driven by racial profiling and other racially tainted practices, and the disparities exist through the sentencing phase: African Americans routinely receive more jail time and harsher punishments.
Cocaine laws disproportionately affect African Americans, who account for 25% of total crack cocaine users, yet who comprised 81% of those convicted of federal crack cocaine offenses in 2007.
Drug offenders in prisons and jails have increased 1200 percent since 1980. Nearly a half million persons are in Federal or State prison or local jail for a drug offense, compared to an estimated 41,100 in 1980. A significant percentage of these offenders have no history of violence or high-level drug selling activity.
There are approximately 1,000,000 gang members in the United States, and gangs commit as much as 80 percent of the crime in some locations.
Spending on corrections rose 127 percent at the State level while higher education expenditures rose just 21 percent.
Prisons and jails have also become holding facilities for the mentally ill. There are an estimated 350,000 men and women prisoners with serious mental disorders -- four times the number in mental health hospitals.
Prisons have also become public health risks, with the number of State prisoners with HIV is 2.5 times greater than the general population.
Prison administration is uneven, lacking clear standards of training and performance, and varying widely between institutions, localities, and between Federal, State and local jurisdictions.
It is against this background that Sen. Webb introduced the National Criminal Justice Act, authorizing the Commission. There has been no in-depth or comprehensive study of the entire criminal justice system since The President's Commission on Law Enforcement and Administration and Justice, impaneled in 1965.
A companion to the Webb bill has been introduced in the House of Representatives with bipartisan sponsorship. The Senate Judiciary Committee has approved the proposal with strong bipartisan support. The legislation is now awaiting action by the full Senate and is pending in the House.
The Commission would carry out a comprehensive review of the criminal justice system, make findings related to current Federal and State criminal justice policies and practices, and make reform recommendations to improve public safety, cost-effectiveness, overall prison administration, and fairness in the implementation of the criminal justice system.
It “would also be charged with looking at how we have arrived at this convoluted mess, how many of our problems are interrelated and often feed off of one another, and how we can correct a system that is badly in need of a new course,” Sen. Webb said.
Other powerful actors agree. Among them is Hilary 0. Shelton, Director of the Washington Bureau of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). In a telephone interview, Shelton told IPS, “At every stage of the criminal justice process serious problems undermine basic tenets of fairness and equity, as well as the public’s expectations for safety.”
He added, “Perhaps the most glaring problem inherent in today’s system is the number of racial and ethnic minorities who are disproportionately treated more harshly and more often by our Nation’s criminal justice system. From initial contact to sentencing to the challenges facing those reentering the community after incarceration – racial and ethnic minorities are disproportionately represented in the number of people stopped, arrested, tried, convicted and incarcerated.”
The Commission would include members appointed by the president and by federal and state politicians, as well as private sector specialists in law enforcement, criminal justice, national security, prison administration, prisoner reentry, public health, including drug addiction and mental health, victims' rights, and social services.
The bill has also been endorsed by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, the largest organization of police executives.