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Twenty-five years ago this month, Congress passed the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). This law protects people with disabilities from discrimination, including many kids with learning and attention issues.

No matter where your child goes, from school to work, the ADA will protect her. It’s just as important as the laws for IEPs and 504 plans.

In honor of the anniversary, we interviewed Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-WI). He supported the ADA when it was first signed into law on July 26, 1990. Then, in 2008, he sponsored and helped pass the ADA Amendments Act to strengthen the law.

Here, he shares his thoughts on the importance of the ADA.

You’ve been a champion of the ADA for years. Why is the 25th anniversary of this law so important?

The 25th anniversary of the ADA is a huge milestone in the ongoing fight for the rights of the disabled. Before 1990, disabled Americans were subject to false stereotypes and second-class citizenship.

Congress passed the ADA to break down the physical and societal barriers that kept disabled Americans from fully participating in the American Dream.

Like all the most impactful legislation, the ADA’s legal protection has helped spark important cultural changes. Twenty-five years later, we can appreciate how much better things are.

Fewer citizens are judged by their physical and mental impairments. More and more are evaluated according to their character and qualifications.

What are you most proud about when it comes to the ADA?

From creating standards for wheelchair accessibility in places open to the public to requiring 911 phone lines to be equipped to respond to hearing-impaired callers, the ADA has transformed the lives of millions of Americans. But, like all major civil rights bills, passing the ADA required time, hard work and a broad range of support.

I’m most proud about how the ADA has brought together people from across the country with different backgrounds and diverse political beliefs. Our nation is stronger when all of its citizens are given the opportunity to succeed.

The ADA remains a powerful reminder of the good work we can do in government when we put aside our differences to achieve a common goal.

Your wife was hurt in a car crash when she was 22 and uses a wheelchair. What has the ADA meant to your family?

My wife Cheryl has been a tireless advocate for the disabled and served as a board member of the American Association of People with Disabilities. I know the daily pain she lives with, but she has never let those challenges slow her down.

Twenty-five years ago, she asked me to do what I could to help pass the ADA. I should have known then that the bill’s passage wouldn’t be the end of her advocacy. She has pushed me every day since to continue to fight for the disabled.

Even today, I’m working to pass the Ensuring Access to Quality Complex Rehabilitation Technology Act to make it easier for patients with disabilities to get medical equipment.

Championing the fight for the rights of the disabled in Congress is one of my proudest accomplishments. My wife and my family have been given countless opportunities that may not have been possible without the ADA.

Despite the ADA, many parents still struggle to get the right help at school for their kids. What would you say to them?

Our students are our most precious resource. As technologies and teaching methods change, new challenges arise for disabled students, leaving some ADA standards outdated and insufficient.

I would encourage parents to voice their concerns and share their stories with state, local and federal representatives. As elected officials, we rely on input from our constituents to help identify problems so we can find meaningful, commonsense solutions.

Some disabilities are easy to spot, but some, like learning and attention issues, are “invisible.” Do you think we need a different approach for them?

When Congress passed the ADA and President George H. W. Bush signed it into law, it was done with the intent that the law would be broadly interpreted. But a series of Supreme Court rulings chipped away at the law’s expansive protections for the disabled.

I introduced the ADA Restoration Act of 2007, and later sponsored the ADA Amendments Act of 2008, which George W. Bush signed into law.

These bills instruct courts to focus on the discrimination a person has experienced rather than requiring that person to prove the extent of his or her disability. That can be especially difficult with learning and attention issues.

I will continue to promote a broad interpretation of the ADA to protect all those with disabilities—visible and invisible—from discrimination.

Some states have passed laws that require teacher training and acknowledgement of dyslexia. What do you think about laws that focus on a particular issue or disability?

The ADA and the ADA Amendments Act of 2008 identify and provide protections for disabled Americans on the federal level. That is necessary for ensuring all citizens have equal opportunity to pursue their American Dream.

In our system of dual federalism, states are given the power to draft additional and more targeted laws to meet the needs of their constituents. Often, states will learn from legislative successes in other states and follow suit.

There’s been so much progress since the ADA was passed. But what do you think is our biggest challenge right now?

The progress we’ve made in the past 25 years is remarkable, and I’m proud to have been part of these efforts. But we need to keep working to ensure that Americans have access to the latest life-changing technologies.

That’s why I’m currently promoting the Ensuring Access to Quality Complex Rehabilitation Technology Act. The best technology in the world is useless if the people who need it can’t afford it.

As our nation evolves, the fight for civil rights continues and challenges us to take a close look at how our laws promote or prevent our citizens from achieving their full potential. Twenty-five years from now, it is my hope that disabled Americans are treated with the dignity and respect they deserve and seen as equal under the law.

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Today, Congressman Jim Sensenbrenner sent the following letter to EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy regarding her response to his May 12 request for the EPA’s position on numerous inquiries, including E15 labels, misfueling, and Clean Air Act enforcement:

Dear Administrator McCarthy:

Thank you for appearing before the House Science Committee on July 9 and the EPA’s reply to my letter on July 2. I appreciate your willingness to listen to my concerns and address them.

Acting Assistant Administrator McCabe’s response to my letter regarding Reid Vapor Pressure (RVP) and the Clean Air Act (CAA) left some questions unanswered and raised new ones.

I would like you to address the following questions.

• Is it legal to relabel E-15 as flex fuel?
• Is it legal to sell E-15 as flex fuel?
• If it is illegal to sell or label E-15 as flex fuel, how and when will the EPA inform retailers that it is illegal?
• How will the EPA enforce the E-15 Misfueling Mitigation Rule, RVP violations and related CAA provisions?

I would also like more information regarding the “industry-funded surveys conducted by an independent party to monitor compliance with EPA E-15 labeling requirements.”

• Have industry-funded surveys found retailers relabeling E-15 as flex fuel?
• How long has EPA used industry-funded surveys to monitor compliance the E-15 Misfueling Mitigation Rule and pump labeling requirements?
o Please provide all survey results to me with your reply to this letter.
• Which independent party, or parties, monitored compliance with the EPA E-15 labeling requirements for each year the EPA used the industry-funded surveys?

I request that you respond to this letter and document request by August 19, 2015. Thank you for your attention to this matter.


Member of Congress
Today, Congressman Jim Sensenbrenner introduced legislation to prohibit the sale of fetal tissue acquired by performing an abortion in response to the shocking revelation that abortion clinics, such as Planned Parenthood, are profiting from harvesting the unborn and selling them to the highest bidder. 

Congressman Sensenbrenner: “Due to a poorly drafted section of federal law, Planned Parenthood and other abortion clinics throughout the country are legally able to sell fetal tissue to research institutions. This despicable practice is morally bankrupt, victimizes the defenseless, and increases profits for reprehensible organizations that have no regard for human life. This legislation is an important step forward in the ongoing efforts to protect innocent lives and fight on behalf of the unborn.
Today, Congressman Jim Sensenbrenner denounced the Iran deal in his speech to the Watertown Rotary. He joins a growing number of Congressional leaders in denouncing the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, which puts America, and her allies, at increased risk of attack by Iran, a known state sponsor of terrorism. Below is an excerpt from his remarks:

Congressman Sensenbrenner: “By allowing key restraints on Iran’s nuclear program to expire and lifting military arms and ballistic missile restrictions, President Obama has placed a target on the backs of all Americans. Iran is a state sponsor of terrorism, and giving them billions of dollars in sanctions relief will help them fund their proxy wars on America and our allies. It’s imperative we prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons and terror financing capabilities, and I, along with many of my colleagues in Congress, are committed to reversing this egregious deal brokered by the Obama Administration”   

PRESIDENT OBAMA went somewhere Thursday that, according to the White House, no other sitting president ever has: a federal prison. His point was that no advanced society should be comfortable with the way this country punishes crime. The nation locks up too many people for too long, and it too often treats them poorly behind bars. In part because of Mr. Obama — but also because of a strong left-right alliance that includes the Koch brothers, the American Civil Liberties Union and others in between — change could come very soon. If, that is, Congress acts.

The case for reform starts with the eye-popping fact that the United States has 5 percent of the world’s population but 25 percent of its prisoners, in large part because of drug crime sentences. The country’s federal imprisonment rate is up more than five times from 1980, multiplying federal prison costs by nearly six times, according to the Pew Charitable Trusts. “Up to a certain point, tougher prosecutors and stiffer sentences for these violent offenders contributed to the decline in violent crime over the last few decades,” Mr. Obama conceded this week. But, he added, “the science also indicates that you get a point of diminishing returns,” particularly when non-violent and low-level offenders get hit with harsh sentences.

Mass incarceration also seems plainly impractical because there are a variety of more appealing options that many states have been experimenting with. The state prison population dropped between 2003 and 2013, while the federal prison population increased. While many states are looking at innovative ways to treat people more fairly and save money, the Justice Department is seeing an ever-larger percentage of its budget go to prison spending.

Mr. Obama and a bipartisan gaggle of federal lawmakers want to apply the states’ insights to the federal system. The most significant bill on the table — the House’s Safe, Accountable, Fair, and Effective (SAFE) Justice Act — would reserve drug trafficking life sentences and other major penalties for drug bosses rather than low-level dealers, give more sentencing flexibility to judges and focus federal resources away from drug possession enforcement. It would create specialized courts for drug crimes and the mentally ill. It would also put a much greater emphasis on prison programming — job training, mental-health care, substance-abuse treatment — and better post-release supervision.

The bill isn’t perfect. It wouldn’t give felons who have served their time the right to vote in federal elections, for example. Nor would it do enough to cut back on the rampant overuse of solitary confinement. “Do we really think it makes sense to lock so many people alone in tiny cells for 23 hours a day, sometimes for months or even years at a time?” Mr. Obama asked this week. States such as Colorado, Maine and Mississippi are drastically reducing their use of solitary. Mr. Obama has ordered a Justice Department review. But Congress doesn’t need to wait for the results; the horrifying scandal of America’s overuse of solitary confinement is already well-known.

House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) promised Thursday to give floor time to criminal justice reform. Lawmakers should take the opportunity to be as comprehensive as possible. A smarter justice system less focused on long prison terms and more focused on fitting punishments to crimes and preventing recidivism would be truer to the country’s commitment to individual liberty and almost certainly better for government finances and community cohesion.

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WASHINGTON, D.C. –Today, Congressman Jim Sensenbrenner released the following statement regarding President Obama’s politically-motivated decision to commute the federal prison sentences of 46 drug offenders instead of approaching criminal justice reform in its entirety: 

Congressman Sensenbrenner: “Rather than taking a serious look at criminal justice reform, today President Obama chose to engage in publicity stunts and political pandering. Commuting the sentences of a few drug offenders is a move designed to spur headlines, not meaningful reform. While we in Congress are working on the SAFE Justice Act – targeted, evidence-based legislation, the President is focusing on sound bites instead of sound policy. The American people deserve leadership, not showmanship.”

The White House is preparing to seize advantage of bipartisan concern over the burgeoning U.S. prison population and push for legislation that would reduce federal sentences for nonviolent crimes.

President Barack Obama is expected to argue for revamping U.S. sentencing guidelines during a speech to the NAACP annual convention on Tuesday in Philadelphia. Top officials from the Justice Department, including Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates, have recently met with members of Congress to express support for sentencing reform legislation. Key lawmakers from both parties have been invited to the White House next week to discuss strategy.

“Engagement with the president has been lacking for the past six years, but this is one topic where it has been refreshingly bipartisan,” Jason Chaffetz, the Utah Republican who heads the House Oversight Committee, said in a phone interview.

Obama came to office promising to reduce the number of Americans imprisoned for nonviolent drug offenses, and in 2010 signed a law reducing disparities in sentences for possession of crack and powder cocaine. Some Republicans and police organizations criticized the moves as too lenient, but now a bipartisan coalition that includes Obama’s chief political antagonists, billionaires Charles and David Koch, have joined him to support relaxing federal sentencing guidelines.

Mass Incarceration

More than 2.2 million adults are imprisoned in the U.S., the most in the world, and the incarceration rate is between five and 10 times higher than in Western European countries, according to the National Research Council. Lawmakers in both parties have been raising alarms about the cost of mass incarceration to taxpayers and to minority communities that are disproportionately the source of prisoners.

About 60 percent of all prisoners are black or Hispanic, and black men under age 35 who did not finish high school are more likely to be behind bars than to hold a job, according to the research council. More than 100,000 people are currently in federal prison for drug-related crimes, at a cost of about $30,000 per person each year, the United States Sentencing Commission said in a May report.

That price tag has drawn a cadre of fiscally-conservative Republicans to join with Democrats in a bid to overhaul sentencing. Success would mean a rare bipartisan legislative victory for Obama and a concrete policy achievement to match recent speeches urging the nation to focus on racial and criminal-justice issues.

Unusual Allies

Chaffetz said he was optimistic that a package of bills would advance because of a diverse coalition of supporters lined up behind it. The president dubbed the legislation “a big sack of potatoes” in a meeting with lawmakers in February, Chaffetz said. The composition of the legislation isn’t final.

The Koch brothers, billionaire Republican donors, support a bill introduced last month by Representatives Jim Sensenbrenner, a Wisconsin Republican, and Bobby Scott, a Virginia Democrat, that would encourage probation rather than imprisonment for relatively minor, non-violent offenses and improve parole programs in order to reduce recidivism.

The Sensenbrenner-Scott bill is modeled on state efforts to reduce incarceration. While the federal prison population has grown 15 percent in the last decade, state prisons hold 4 percent fewer people, according to Sensenbrenner’s office. Thirty-two states have saved a cumulative $4.6 billion in the past five years from reduced crime and imprisonment, his office said in a report.

Studying Sentencing

The legislation “is the result of years of efforts to identify, compile and bring to the national level the best, evidence-based practices in criminal justice reform,” Representative Elijah Cummings, a Maryland Democrat said in a statement.

Bob Goodlatte, the Republican chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, held a meeting in late June to listen to proposals from lawmakers in both parties. And Chaffetz, who described Republican leadership in the House as “very optimistic and encouraging,” scheduled hearings on the issue by his committee for July 14 and 15.

“I don’t normally do two days of hearings, we’re giving it that much attention,” Chaffetz said. “So it has more momentum than anybody realizes.”

There is a significant obstacle on the other side of the Capitol: Senator Chuck Grassley, the Iowa Republican who chairs his chamber’s Judiciary Committee.

Winning Grassley

An effort in February to advance legislation that included across-the-board reductions in minimum mandatory sentences met with resistance from Grassley, who wouldn’t put it to a vote in his committee. But supporters of the House legislation have reason for optimism: last month, Grassley announced he would work on a compromise in the Senate.

While Grassley has indicated a willingness to reduce penalties for some crimes, he wants to increase mandatory minimum sentences for other offenses, a Senate Republican aide said. The person requested anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.

That could make sentencing changes an easier sell to tough-on-crime voters, but endanger the support of lawmakers who see mandatory minimums as bad policy.

“There does appear hope for a bipartisan compromise,” White House press secretary Josh Earnest said Monday. “We obviously welcome that opportunity.”

Senator Mike Lee, a Utah Republican who has long championed criminal justice reform, is leading negotiations with Grassley. He’s backed by Patrick Leahy of Vermont, the senior Democrat on Grassley’s committee, and Dick Durbin of Illinois, the second-ranking Democrat in the Senate.

The talks remain sensitive. During a Judiciary Committee hearing on Wednesday, Leahy -- admitting he already knew the answer -- asked Yates, who was testifying before the panel, to restate her support for sentencing reform.

“I was born at night, but not last night,” Grassley interjected. “And I know that question was in reference to me, and I want everybody to know that we’re working hard on getting a sentencing reform compromise that we can introduce. And if we don’t get one pretty soon, I’ll probably have my own ideas to put forward.”

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WASHINGTON – Congressman Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.) yesterday reintroduced the Private Property Rights Protection Act, which would provide American citizens with the means to protect their private property from inappropriate claims of eminent domain. If a state or political subdivision of a state uses its eminent domain power to transfer private property to other private parties for the purpose of economic development, the state would be ineligible for federal economic funds for two fiscal years following a judicial determination that the law has been violated. Additionally, the federal government would be prohibited from using eminent domain for economic development purposes. 

Congressman Sensenbrenner: “The freedom to own and protect one’s private property is foundational to our country. Congress must fight to protect the private property rights of Americans and reform the use and abuse of eminent domain. Under new leadership in the Senate, I’m hopeful this legislation will pass and restore the government’s power of eminent domain to its limited, proper role.
The U.S. locks up more of its citizens than any nation in the world, and far too many of them are African American and Hispanic men imprisoned for non-violent drug crimes. The sad state of the criminal-justice system has become, over the last decade, a crisis lamented with nearly equal measure of sorrow by Democrats and Republicans alike. To hear the politicians tell it, mass incarceration is both a financial drain on the government at all levels, and a moral stain that consigns families and entire communities to a cycle of poverty.

Yet despite no shortage of proposals for reform in recent years, Congress has done virtually nothing. That may, finally, be about to change, as an emboldened President Obama eyes what might be the last major addition to his domestic legacy in the White House.

Speaking at a press conference last week, the president was asked how he might follow the remarkable string of victories he earned in late June, which included a congressional win on trade, a pair of legacy-setting Supreme Court decisions, and a widely-praised eulogy in Charleston. He ticked off several unchecked boxes on his economic agenda, including a major infrastructure bill and enactment of his proposals to boost job training and access to community college. But the big-ticket item Obama mentioned that actually holds the most promise in the Republican Congress is a long-awaited overhaul of the nation’s criminal-justice system. “We’ve seen some really interesting leadership from some unlikely Republican legislators very sincerely concerned about making progress there,” the president observed.

He’s right. The bipartisan coalition pushing to reduce incarceration rates in the world’s most crowded prison system has been building for years, bringing together ardent foes like the Koch Brothers and the ACLU, and Rand Paul and Cory Booker, among others. Various proposals to eliminate mandatory-minimum sentences for certain drug crimes, and to keep young, nonviolent offenders from receiving long, crippling prison sentences have circulated for a while without going anywhere. Yet that movement is cresting now, providing what lawmakers and advocates say is a genuine opportunity to enact legislation before the end of the year. “I am very optimistic that we will get something done. If you had told me a couple years ago, I would not have believed it,” said Representative Elijah Cummings, a Maryland Democrat who is not known as a congressional Pollyanna.

As usual, however, Cummings’s rosy view comes with a key caveat repeated by other advocates I interviewed: the looming presidential election. “I think the stars have aligned,” Cummings said. “I do believe, however, that if we don’t get it done now, I don’t know that the stars will align like this again.” Obama talked up the prospect of criminal-justice reform just a few days after lawmakers in the House unveiled the most ambitious and comprehensive proposal to modernize the system to date. Over the weekend, The New York Times reported that Obama was soon likely to commute the sentences of dozens of nonviolent drug offenders—an act of presidential clemency unprecedented in scope that would seek to galvanize the push for reform in Congress.

What distinguishes criminal-justice reform from other bipartisan efforts is the wide range of motivations that have led a diverse coalition of people to draw the same conclusion: There should be a lot fewer people in U.S. prisons. Fiscal hawks, including the anti-tax activist Grover Norquist, frequently cite the exploding costs and inefficiency of the criminal-justice system. According to an oft-repeated statistic from the Pew Charitable Trusts, federal spending on prisons rose sevenfold over the last three decades, from less than $1 billion (adjusted for inflation) in 1980 to nearly $7 billion in 2013. That increase was propelled by a corresponding rise in the number of inmates and the number of prisons.

Another libertarian complaint is “overcriminalization.” Congress keeps making new laws, which have led to thousands of different rules in the penal code that can be broken—and prosecuted. “There are now so many administrative regulations that carry criminal penalties that nobody knows how many there are,” said Representative Jim Sensenbrenner, a Wisconsin Republican and co-author of the SAFE Justice Act, a comprehensive proposal introduced in June.

Yet those arguments have faded to the background in recent months as the deaths, at the hands of police, of young black men in Ferguson, Staten Island, and Baltimore—along with the suicide of Kalief Browder in New York—have once again illuminated the inequities that draw a disproportionate number of African American and Hispanic men into the criminal-justice system at an early age. The financial cost is significant, acknowledged Senator Mike Lee, the Tea Party conservative who has joined with Democrats to push for a reduction in mandatory-minimum sentences. “The even more significant and more compelling component of this is the human cost,” Lee told me, “the number of husbands, fathers, sons, uncles, brothers throughout the country who are locked up for sometimes years and decades at a time.”

And as Obama and others have noted, even a short prison sentence can be catastrophic to a person’s future chance of success. Many employers won’t hire people with a criminal record, and they might even be ineligible for many educational or job training programs, leaving them with few options. “It is not a sentence for a week or a year. It is a sentence for a lifetime,” Cummings said. “There are certain states where you cannot become a barber if you have a criminal record. We are creating a situation where people have nowhere to go but a life of crime.”

The question House and Senate lawmakers are now wrestling with is the scope of legislation. Proposals in the Senate have tended to focus on narrow aspects of criminal-justice reform. The Smarter Sentencing Act, introduced by Lee and Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois, the second-ranking Democrat, would reduce mandatory-minimum sentencing for nonviolent-drug crimes while increasing penalties for drug offenses linked to sexual abuse or terrorism. Another bill from Senators John Cornyn, a Texas Republican, and Sheldon Whitehouse, a Democrat of Rhode Island, would tackle so-called re-entry reform. Based on successful programs in their home states, the proposal would allow inmates to earn time off their sentences by participating in programs, such as prison jobs, designed to reduce recidivism.

In the House, criminal-justice reform advocates (including Koch Industries and the ACLU) have rallied around the broader bill authored by Sensenbrenner and Representative Bobby Scott, a Virginia Democrat. The SAFE Justice Act addresses both mandatory minimums and recidivism programs, but it also includes a raft of other changes aimed at beefing up probation programs, preventing wrongful convictions by offering more protections for poor defendants, and making it easier for elderly inmates to secure early release. The bill also addresses what advocates call the “over-federalization” of crime, in which offenses that could be prosecuted in state court are often transferred to federal jurisdiction, where the penalties are stiffer. Sensenbrenner said the proposal emerged out a task force that he and Scott led that held 10 hearings over the last two years and studied many reform efforts that have worked at the state level.

For Virginia Sloan, president of the Constitution Project, the sheer breadth of the proposal is something of a watershed moment in the 20-year effort to roll back tough-on-crime laws that many Republicans and Democrats now concede went too far. “We just have not seen this level of bipartisanship in a long time, if ever,” Sloan told me. “People are now looking back at those bills and saying, ‘It doesn’t matter what party you were from: We made mistakes. We went in the direction of toughness and finality rather than fairness and reliability and getting it right.’”

In Congress, not even consensus is a guarantee of success. After Obama’s reelection in 2012, advocates for comprehensive immigration reform were never more confident that their moment had come, and despite the passage of legislation in the Senate, the effort stalled out in the House. Neither Speaker John Boehner nor Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell have said much either way about criminal-justice reform, but the congressional middle men—Judiciary Committee Chairmen Charles Grassley in the Senate or Bob Goodlatte in the House—are more traditional law-and-order Republicans who have been resistant to the issue in the past.

There are indications, however, that at least Grassley may be shifting. In March, he delivered a lengthy speech denouncing efforts to reduce mandatory minimums, mocking supporters for promoting the idea “that poor, innocent, mere drug possessors are crowding our prisons.” In recent days, his office has confirmed reports by Politico and BuzzFeed that he is working with Democrats on legislation that could include changes to mandatory minimum sentences. In the House, Goodlatte has set up a separate, “step-by-step” process for considering the issue over the next several months. That’s ominous news for advocates, since it’s the same process Goodlatte used to effectively slow-walk immigration reform to death in 2013. Sensenbrenner, for example, criticized the chairman’s intention to split up his bill into multiple pieces. “This is a way to make sure all of this fails,” he told me.

If the failure of immigration reform is a cautionary tale for advocates of criminal-justice reform, then the more recent success of legislation reining in the NSA could be a roadmap. The coalition of Democrats and libertarian-minded Republicans is similar, and it is lead in part by Sensenbrenner, a 36-year veteran of the House, it kept gathering support until it became impossible for the resistant party leadership to ignore. That effort took more than a year, however, and with the presidential campaign threatening to interrupt the bipartisan comity that’s broken out on Capitol Hill, there’s a reason President Obama needs lawmakers to move quickly. If he wants to notch one more lasting victory for his domestic legacy, he might only have a few more months to get it done.
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The U.S. criminal justice system is in a state of crisis — and Congress is finally moving to address it. On June 25, Reps. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.) and Bobby Scott (D-Va.) introduced the bipartisan Safe, Accountable, Fair and Effective Justice Act. Known as the SAFE Justice Act, the legislation is an important step in addressing America’s ballooning, costly and ultimately unjust federal sentencing and corrections system, which needlessly throws away lives and decimates entire communities.

The criminal justice system’s problems are evident all around us.

Over the past three decades, Congress has steadily increased the size and scope of the federal criminal code, ensnaring people who have no business being behind bars, without a corresponding benefit to public safety. From 1980 to 2013, the federal criminal code increased from 3,000 crimes to approximately 5,000 crimes. Over the same period, our federal prison population skyrocketed from 24,000 to 215,000 — a 795 percent overall increase — while federal spending on prisons also soared from $970 million to more than $6.7 billion — a 595 percent increase.

While we have a good handle on how much taxpayers’ money we’ve wasted on over-criminalization and mass incarceration, the cost in human lives is incalculable. Almost every single federal prisoner serving life without parole for nonviolent offenses has one thing in common: a drug offense that resulted in a de facto death sentence. This excessive reliance on punitive sentencing destroys individual lives, families and communities. It is not clear it makes communities any safer. In addition, it is fiscally irresponsible and morally repugnant.

This points to a simple conclusion: The criminal justice system must be reformed. It must be dramatically altered to maximize public safety, minimize its cost to taxpayers and ensure that justice is served — for the victims of crimes, the individuals who commit them and for society at large.

That is why we, two unlikely allies — the American Civil Liberties Union and Koch Industries — support Reps. Sensenbrenner and Scott’s new bipartisan reform proposal. Both of our organizations are deeply concerned with helping the least fortunate and ensuring that justice is served equally and to all, regardless of their socioeconomic status or their station in life. The SAFE Justice Act contains numerous reforms that will begin turning this shared dream into a reality.

The SAFE Justice Act is the result of this two-year investigation which began in spring 2013 when the House Judiciary Committee unanimously charged the two congressmen to chair a comprehensive review of the problems in America’s criminal justice system, as well as an examination of potential solutions.

The congressmen started by looking at state reforms that have successfully lowered incarceration rates and the associated cost to taxpayers. Until recently, state prison trends mimicked federal trends, with the relevant statistics rising across the board. In the past decade, however, 27 states have enacted substantial reforms to their criminal justice systems.

The results they found are striking. The state imprisonment rate fell 4 percent over the past decade, compared with a 15 percent increase at the federal level. Taxpayers have seen the savings, with states saving at least $4.6 billion in lower prison-related costs. Importantly, 32 states saw a drop in both the percentage of people imprisoned and overall crime rates — a revelation that shows how criminal justice reform doesn’t compromise public safety.

The SAFE Justice Act would incorporate lessons learned in these states and apply many of them at the federal level. It seeks to address several specific issues with the current criminal justice system. Four areas of reform are particularly promising:

First, it begins the process of reversing over-criminalization and the over-federalization of the criminal code. The act forces the federal government to disclose the creation of new criminal offenses — a common-sense action that would clarify just how large the criminal code is and how fast it has grown. It also empowers the victims of federal over-criminalization to seek redress via the Office of the Inspector General. It also contains various reforms to protect against wrongful conviction, reduce pre-trial detentions, and eliminate federal criminal penalties in state jurisdictions, including penalties for actions such as drug possession.

Second, it would reform sentencing. Today, mandatory minimums force too many people to plea to lengthy prison sentences — punishments that may not fit the crime. The act seeks to undo this broken system by encouraging judges to offer probation to low-level offenders, while increasing pre-judgment probation. It also would restrict mandatory minimums to specific categories of people — such as high-level members of drug-trafficking organizations rather than street dealers — as originally intended by Congress.

Third, it would reduce recidivism. Too often, the criminal justice system’s flaws turn federal prisons into revolving doors for repeat offenders. The legislation proposes to address this problem with a number of reforms, including shorter sentences for people who participate in specific educational and vocational programs. These reforms can ensure that people who leave federal prison are better equipped to rejoin their communities and contribute to society.

Fourth, it would increase transparency. The bill would require that federal agencies issue regular reports on recidivism rates, prison populations and other key statistics. It also would require that cost analyses be presented to judges prior to sentencing to help them make prudent decisions.
This is only a partial list of the reforms proposed in the SAFE Justice Act. They are a good start — but they are not enough to reverse the damage, financially and in terms of human lives, caused by decades of misguided policies. In particular, members of Congress from both parties should continue to devote particular attention to ensuring that criminal laws penalize only the people who intend to commit crimes, an important distinction that many new federal criminal laws miss. More broadly, they must identify and pass targeted policies that are smarter on crime, rather than just tougher.

By partnering on this project, Democrats and Republicans can help remove barriers to opportunity for the disadvantaged and make our criminal justice system both fairer and more compassionate. The SAFE Justice Act is an important first step down that road — and hopefully the first of many.

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