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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 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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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 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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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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The government today can’t even list all of the federal crimes it could use to charge someone — a symbol of just how out of control the national criminal justice system is, said Reps. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. and Robert C. Scott, two senior congressmen who hope to change the face of the nation’s prison population.

Mr. Sensenbrenner, a white Wisconsin Republican, and Mr. Scott, a black Virginia Democrat, have teamed up for what they hope will be the biggest reform of criminal justice in decades. They hope to prevent people from going to prison unnecessarily in the first place, and to help them reform if they do end up behind bars and avoid going back once they are released.

“I think there will probably be fewer trials and perhaps more plea bargains,” Mr. Sensenbrenner said in an interview along with Mr. Scott hours before they introduced their bill late last month. “We’re changing the law more relative to penalties and what happens to prevent people who go to prison from coming out and going right back in as a hardened criminal.”

Their 144-page bill is based on advances in states, which have been well ahead of Congress in taking a look at tight budgets, burgeoning prison populations and generations of people lost to lives of incarceration and recidivism.

U.S. incarceration rates are the highest in the world, and most inmates are in state prisons or local jails. But over 200,000 are in federal custody. That total has risen from about 25,000 when President Reagan took office in 1981 to a peak of more than 219,000 in 2013, slipping to 214,149 in 2014.

The congressmen ticked off Hawaii, South Dakota and Texas — which have a range of incarceration rates — as just some of the places that have paved the way for changes, and said it’s thanks to those states’ willingness to experiment that statistics are available to show what works and what doesn’t.

That is particularly important in countering the get-tough approach that voters tell pollsters they prefer.

“One of the things that’s significant is the idea that we’re looking at research and evidence,” Mr. Scott said. “When you’re doing crime policy, it’s usually sound bites and slogans. If you get away from the slogans and stick with the evidence, you’ll find there’s a lot of common ground — on the left and the right.”

Big changes

Their bill would make substantial changes at all levels of the criminal justice system. Among them:

? Low-level offenders would be steered toward probation instead of prison, while jail space would be kept for violent and high-level criminals. The “three-strikes” penalty imposing life in prison for a third offense would be curtailed.

? In trials, federal prosecutors would be required to disclose almost all of their investigative files, and they would have to notify each defendant whose case involved a technician, law enforcement officer or someone else deemed to have provided flawed analysis or engaged in misconduct.

? Those sentenced to prison time would be encouraged to get clean and stay clean when they leave, with individualized case plans to match situations and a graduated set of penalties for those on probation so minor mistakes don’t send someone back behind bars immediately.

Mr. Sensenbrenner has been in the middle of a number of high-profile bipartisan bills in recent years, with varying degrees of success.

He recently shepherded through the USA Freedom Act, which rewrote controversial portions of the Patriot Act — which also happened to be a Sensenbrenner-drafted bill from his time as chairman of the House Judiciary Committee in the early 2000s.

The Wisconsin Republican also hooked up with top Democrats on a rewrite of the Voting Rights Act after a Supreme Court decision overturned a key test for how to apply that law. The Republican-led Congress has shown little appetite for action on that measure.

One important yardstick for the criminal justice reform bill’s chances is whether the two men can win support of Rep. Bob Goodlatte, the Virginia Republican who now chairs the House Judiciary Committee.

He is not a co-sponsor of the bill, though he has shown an interest in looking at the issue. His committee hosted a listening session hours before Mr. Sensenbrenner and Mr. Scott introduced their bill.

“The House Judiciary Committee is taking a step-by-step approach to address a variety of criminal justice issues, including overcriminalization, sentencing reform, prison and re-entry reform, protecting citizens through improved criminal procedures and policing strategies, and civil asset forfeiture reform,” a Judiciary Committee aide said. “The committee will give due consideration to all proposals offered by interested members on this topic.”

A big part of the push by Mr. Sensenbrenner and Mr. Scott is to take stock of the breadth of federal crimes — particularly violations of regulations that carry criminal penalties.

“We don’t even have a list of them,” Mr. Scott said.

“Believe me, we tried,” Mr. Sensenbrenner said. “We asked [the Congressional Research Service] to give us a list of them, and we got a letter back saying there are so many of them we don’t have the staff to compile them.”

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When President Obama touches down in LaCrosse, Wis., Thursday afternoon, he'll be landing in the district of the Democratic congressman who is doing a lot of heavy lifting for the president's trade agenda. But when it comes to his fourth-quarter legislative agenda, Rep. Ron Kind isn't the only Dairy State lawmaker that Obama must rely on to advance his priorities.

Whether it's trade or overhauling the criminal justice system or keeping the highway trust fund in the black, members of the Wisconsin delegation are key players.

"We're kind of right in the center of his legislative agenda," Kind said about Wisconsin's 10 members of Congress. "As a delegation, we're strategically placed. And we try to work together. We should be working more in that fashion in Congress — working together to try and get things done."

The confluence of Obama's priorities and the cheeseheads — a nickname many of Obama's fellow Illini have bestowed on their northern neighbors and that Wisconsinites have embraced — could be because "we in Wisconsin are interested in results and think outside of the box to try and get them," said Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, the longtime Republican lawmaker who represents Milwaukee's western suburbs.

"There must be something in the milk around here," he joked.

Earlier this summer when Congress was split on extending some of the USA Patriot Act's most controversial provisions, the White House forcefully put its weight behind Sensenbrenner's USA Freedom Act. That bill ended bulk collection of Americans' phone records while still giving the intelligence community special authorities to thwart terrorist activities.

"The USA Freedom Act is a carefully crafted compromise that has the support of the president, the attorney general, the intelligence community, the technology industry and privacy groups, and most importantly, the American people," Sensenbrenner, who leads the House Judiciary Committee's Crime, Terrorism, Homeland Security and Investigations Subcommittee, stated after the Senate passed it on June 2.

During an appearance with Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff on Tuesday, Obama listed his remaining legislative priorities and mentioned Sensenbrenner, though not by name.

"I am really interested in the possibilities — the prospect of bipartisan legislation around the criminal justice system," Obama stated. "And we've seen some really interesting leadership from some unlikely Republican legislators, very sincerely concerned about making progress there."

Sensenbrenner and Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Va., introduced a criminal justice system reform package on June 26 called the Safe, Accountable Fair and Effective Justice, or SAFE Justice Act. It would overhaul the federal sentencing and corrections system to combat recidivism, maintain lengthy sentences only for violent and career criminals and seek alternatives to jail for non-violent offenders.

"I welcome the president's support," Sensenbrenner said, while making clear that the SAFE Justice Act is very much his and Scott's product. Although the duo kept the administration apprised of their activities, the White House has not been particularly engaged on the issue so far, Sensenbrenner said. "They must have liked the direction [Scott] and I were going in," he said in response to Obama's comment.

When it came to the reigning crown jewel of Obama's late-term agenda, winning the ability to bring trade deals to Congress for sign-off without chance for amendment, Obama had to rely heavily on House Ways and Means Chairman Paul Ryan. The Janesville Republican wrote and pushed relentlessly for trade promotion authority.

"I'm glad the president is finally working more closely with the Wisconsin delegation," Ryan stated. "It goes to show just how much we can get done when we focus on finding common ground."

The White House hopes to again find common ground with the former GOP vice presidential candidate when it comes to preventing the highway trust fund from going bankrupt at month's end. And more importantly, the administration knows he is a key player in budget negotiations and averting another government shutdown.

"[W]e certainly don't believe that Congress should procrastinate any longer in confronting this budgetary responsibility that they have," White House spokesman Josh Earnest said June 25 when asked about the looming budget crisis. "What we have said is most likely to lead to success is for Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill to follow the approach that was established by Senator Murray and Chairman Paul Ryan.

"Ultimately, two years ago, in the context of the last budget agreement, those two...sat down at the negotiating table and hammered out a budget agreement that didn't reflect anybody's idea of perfection," Earnest continued. "Nobody got everything that they wanted out of those talks. But what was generated, and what was produced by those conversations, was a genuinely bipartisan piece of legislation that reflected common ground between the two parties."

Sensenbrenner, Ryan and Kind all emphasize bipartisanship when discussing their legislative priorities and their leadership style is one of midwestern pragmatism.

"One thing that you need to get anything done in Washington is to make it bipartisan and bicameral," said Sensenbrenner, who is in his 19th term in the House.

"I think we just intuitively know that," Kind added. "I think that's why we want to be in office — to have a voice at the table and to be active and...to help shape and craft these" important policies.

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As we celebrate Independence Day, we are reminded of the values our nation’s founders fought tirelessly to safeguard: individual liberty, equal justice under the law and limited government.

After leading the House Judiciary Committee’s Over-Criminalization Task Force for a year and a half, I have seen firsthand how these most basic principles of freedom and fairness have fallen by the wayside in our criminal justice system. Our jails are overcrowded, our criminal code is convoluted and our taxpayer dollars are being wasted.

The United States is home to just five percent of the world’s population, but holds 25 percent of the world’s prison population. From 1980 to 2013, the number of incarcerated offenders in federal prisons skyrocketed from 24,000 to more than 215,000. Currently, the federal prison system consumes more than 25 percent of the entire Department of Justice budget.

Despite this dramatic rise in incarceration rates, recidivism rates have remained high. And even with the startling increase in prison spending, more than 40 percent of released offenders return to prison within three years of their release—proving yet again that big government does not mean better government. Something must be done, not just from a fiscal perspective, but a moral perspective.

When it comes to addressing over-criminalization, we have seen progress in states across the country, Wisconsin included. Many states have reduced both crime and incarceration rates over the past five years, making their communities safer.  Cumulative cost savings in a subset of these states exceed $4.6 billion.

Wisconsin has been a leader in exploring alternatives to prison for low-risk, non-violent offenders struggling with addiction, mental illness and other health conditions. Recent studies have shown that for every $1 spent on these alternative programs, Wisconsin taxpayers would save $2 by averting high incarceration costs and lowering the crime rate.

Innovative solutions from the states have led to promising results. Now Congress must follow suit.

Last Thursday, I introduced the Safe, Accountable, Fair, and Effective (SAFE) Justice Act with Representative Bobby Scott (D-VA). This bipartisan bill applies state-tested methods to reform the federal criminal justice system and curtail over-criminalization and over-incarceration.

Reps. Sensenbrenner and Scott announce the introduction of the SAFE Justice Act of 2015.

The SAFE Justice Act will:

-    Reduce recidivism and crime rates

-    Concentrate prison space on violent and career criminals

-    Expand alternatives to imprisonment

-    Save taxpayer dollars

The road to criminal justice reform is long, but with a broad range of support from across the political spectrum coupled with momentum from state successes, the SAFE Justice Act is a monumental step forward.

I wish you and your family a happy and safe Fourth of July. 

Two years after beginning an intensive, comprehensive review of the federal criminal justice system as the leaders of the Over-Criminalization Task Force, Representatives Jim Sensenbrenner (R-WI) and Bobby Scott (D-VA) today introduced bipartisan, state-tested legislation aimed at safely reining in the size and associated costs of the federal criminal code and prison system.

The Safe, Accountable, Fair, and Effective (SAFE) Justice Act of 2015 takes a broad-based approach to improving the federal sentencing and corrections system, from front-end sentencing reform to back-end release policies.  It is also the first bill that addresses the federal supervision system – ensuring that probation does a better job stopping the revolving door at federal prisons.  The legislation, which is inspired by the successes of states across the country, will reduce recidivism, concentrate prison space on violent and career criminals, increase the use of evidence-based alternatives to incarceration, curtail over-criminalization, reduce crime, and save money.

“We cannot allow our criminal justice system to remain on its current trajectory,” said Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-WI).  “It’s not only fiscally unsustainable, but morally irresponsible. The states have been outperforming Congress on criminal justice reform for years, so today’s introduction of the SAFE Justice Act is a major step forward in implementing effective, meaningful reform on the federal level that will enact fairness in sentencing, reduce the taxpayer burden, and ensure the increased safety and prosperity of communities across the country.”

Similar to the successful reform packages enacted in many states, the SAFE Justice Act aligns the federal prison system with the science about what works to reform criminal behavior. It reflects the growing consensus among researchers that, for many offenders, tacking more months and years onto long prison terms is a high-cost, low-return approach to public safety.  It also looks to the growing number of practices in correctional supervision that are shown to reduce recidivism.

“Our criminal justice system is long overdue for reform,” stated Rep. Bobby Scott (D-VA) “Chairman Sensenbrenner and I have been working tirelessly for months to find common ground and bipartisan solutions to this problem.  The SAFE Justice Act implements the successful, evidence-based reforms from the states and restores accountability, fairness and rationality to our federal criminal justice system.  Most importantly, it utilizes an evidence-based approach to reduce overcriminalization and overincarceration and reinvests the savings into community based prevention and early-intervention programs to improve public safety.”

In the past 10 years, the federal imprisonment rate has jumped by 15 percent while the states’ rate has declined 4 percent. The drop in the states’ imprisonment rate, which occurred alongside sustained reductions in crime, can be attributed in large part to the more than two dozen states that have enacted comprehensive, evidence-based corrections reforms.

“I congratulate Mr. Sensenbrenner and Mr. Scott for their determined and careful work,” stated Rep. Raúl Labrador (R-ID), a member of the House Judiciary Committee. “This bill accelerates momentum building across the political spectrum for criminal justice reforms that protect the public, while offering smart alternatives to punishment.”

“I am proud to co-sponsor the SAFE Justice Act and I commend my colleagues, Mr. Scott and Mr. Sensenbrenner, for their commitment to reaching a bipartisan solution to reform our criminal justice system,” stated Rep. Luis Gutiérrez (D-IL), a member of the House Judiciary Committee. “So often, minorities and youth are casualties of a harsh institution that imposes incarceration and impedes rehabilitation.  This bill is a comprehensive overhaul that will focus on crime and violence prevention on the front end while making strategic investments in young people rather than simply treating all young people with a one size fits all criminal justice approach.”

“The SAFE Justice Act will finally spark an important discussion that should have happened long ago,” stated Rep. Ted Yoho (R-FL). “Improving our criminal justice system will not only save money for the American taxpayer, but it will also reduce recidivism and restrain an ever-expanding federal government. I commend Representatives Sensenbrenner and Scott for introducing this bipartisan, comprehensive bill.”

“The criminal justice system is consistently failing the American people. We incarcerate far too many of our citizens for far too long, spending too much on punishments without rehabilitation and leaving the public less safe,” stated Rep. Cedric Richmond (D-LA). “The systemic problems with our justice system call for broad, comprehensive reform. The SAFE Act will take that step, addressing a wide range of issue to ensure that our justice system uses incarceration for violent and dangerous criminals. Giving individuals who have made mistakes the opportunity to better themselves and walk the right path is not only the right thing to do it will also save millions of tax payer dollars. I am proud to join my colleagues in this bipartisan effort to create a more efficient judicial system that will actually keep us safer.”

“Over-criminalization is an example of a larger issue for my constituents in Utah:  That government has gotten too big and too intrusive,” stated Rep. Mia Love (R-UT). “The Federal Government should follow Utah’s example when it comes to implementing smarter policies to reduce crime, such as finding alternatives to incarceration whenever possible.   I am pleased to cosponsor the SAFE Justice Act.”

“This is a historic bill.  It 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.  Through the SAFE Justice Act, we can finally tackle massive, necessary changes to our criminal justice system in a bipartisan way,” stated Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-MD). “Importantly, we can also reinvest savings into efforts that rebuild the relationship between the public and the police, and make sure law enforcement officers have what they need to do their jobs.  I know the SAFE Justice Act will mean great strides for the future of communities like Baltimore, and I look forward to working with my colleagues to make sure it passes.”

“I have personally witnessed the good work of mental health courts and the veterans treatment courts. These programs, along with some of the other reforms in this bill, have already been implemented in my home state of Georgia, and we have already started to reap the benefits,” stated Rep. Doug Collins (R-GA). “The SAFE Justice Act would keep violent offenders behind bars where they belong, but also provides a path to a people-centered approach for those who have just lost their way.”

“Reducing crime and advancing meaningful criminal justice reform are not mutually exclusive goals,” stated Rep. Scott Rigell (R-VA), who noted that similar reforms enacted in 32 states across America have reduced rates of crime and imprisonment in those states and have returned millions of dollars for reinvestment in programs designed to improve public safety. “The SAFE Justice Act makes evidence-driven reforms that will reduce recidivism, over-criminalization, and over-incarceration without diminishing the integrity of our federal criminal justice system. I commend my colleagues, Mr. Scott and Mr. Sensenbrenner, for their commitment to improving public safety and saving taxpayer dollars.”

The SAFE Justice Act will:

Reduce recidivism by –
•    incentivizing completion of evidence-based prison programming and activities through expanded earned time credits;
•    implementing swift, certain, and proportionate sanctions for violations of supervision; and
•    offering credits for compliance with the conditions of supervision.

Concentrate prison space on violent and career criminals by  –
•    focusing mandatory minimum sentences on leaders and supervisors of drug trafficking organizations;
•    modestly expanding the drug trafficking safety valve (an exception to mandatory minimums) for offenders who provide substantial assistance to the government; and
•    creating release valves for lower-risk geriatric and terminally-ill offenders.

Increase use of evidence-based sentencing alternatives by  –
•    encouraging greater use of probation and problem-solving courts for appropriate offenders; and
•    creating a performance-incentive funding program to better align the interests of the Bureau of Prisons and federal judicial districts.
 
Curtail over-criminalization by –
•    requiring regulatory criminal offenses to be compiled and published for the public;
•    ensuring fiscal impact statements are attached to all future sentencing and corrections proposals; and
•    charging the Department of Justice, the Bureau of Prisons, and the Administrative Office of the Courts with collecting key outcome performance measures.

Reduce crime by –
•    investing in evidence-based crime prevention initiatives; and
•    increasing funding for community based policing and public safety initiatives.

Additional information about the SAFE Justice Act:
•    Bill Text
•    Section-by-Section
•    Two-Page Summary

A bipartisan pair of lawmakers on Thursday unveiled a comprehensive criminal reform bill aimed at reducing the federal prison population.
 
The Safe, Accountable, Fair, and Effective (SAFE) Justice Act from Reps. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.) and Bobby Scott (D-Va.) calls for new rehabilitation methods and sentencing reforms.
 
The bill is the result of the House Judiciary Committee's over-criminalization task force which examined ways to reform federal prisons.

The lawmakers discussed their legislation, alongside six co-sponsors, at a press conference Thursday afternoon.
 
Sensenbrenner said the bill was intended to reverse the staggering increase in the prison population, which has quadrupled in the last 30 years. Despite increased incarceration and spending on prisons, recidivism still remains a problem, he also noted.
 
The bill applies mandatory minimums only to major crimes, and “expands recidivism reduction programming to incentivize and reward those who are working to make a change,” Sensenbrenner said. The bill also includes funding for research, support and training for law enforcement officers.
 
Scott said the bill would encourage innovate approaches to criminal justice reform.
 
“We were not interested in playing politics with crime policy,” said Scott.
 
He noted that 32 states had been able to reduce both crime and incarceration rates over the past five years. Calling those states "laboratories of democracy," he said the bill adopted many of those tested practices.
 
Scott lamented the high incarceration rate in the U.S. He said the bill aims to “direct non-violent low level, first time offenders from prison" and better acknowledge the conditions that lead to crime.
 
“If you address those underlying issues, you will have a better return rate than just from locking them up,” he said.
 
The bill also garnered support from major groups across the political spectrum.
 
Leaders and representatives from Koch Industries, the ACLU, the NAACP, the Washington D.C. Police Foundation, Families Against Mandatory Minimums, and the Center for Criminal Justice Reform at the American Conservative Union have expressed support for the bill.
 
The bill is co-sponsored by Reps. Doug Collins (R-Ga.), Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), Raul Labrador (R-Idaho), Judy Chu (D-Calif.), Mia Love (R-Utah), and Scott Rigell (R-Va).
 
“Too many of our children have gotten caught into a cycle that they can not get out of,” said Love, explaining the bill's appeal.
 
Rep. Rigell touted the broad coalition backing the bill, which includes Koch Industries, owned-by the Koch Brothers, who are major conservative donors.
 
“If you think of those as two gate posts, “ he said, noting Koch Industries and the ACLU, “that’s an awfully wide gate.”

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