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Obama and Boehner Agree on Need for Criminal Justice Reform

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

With congressional commentary often centering on political gridlock and ideological opposition, it is essential to recognize moments of compromise and pragmatism in Washington. On July 14, Representative Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY) joined peers Raul Labrador (R-ID), Jason Chaffetz (R-UT), and Cedric Richmond (D-LA) to announce the formation of a new bipartisan Criminal Justice and Public Safety Caucus. “America’s criminal justice system wastes taxpayer dollars, hurts our economic productivity and has unnecessarily devastated countless families,” Rep. Jeffries said. “Fixing our badly broken system is an urgent challenge this Congress must confront.”

These moves mark a recent uptick of bipartisan congressional activity around the subject. Late last month, Representatives F. James Sensenbrenner (R-WI) and Bobby Scott (D-VA) introduced the Safe, Accountable, Fair, and Effective (SAFE) Justice Act. The Bipartisan Policy Center (BPC) commends the lawmakers for working across party lines to tackle a tough, highly controversial issue. SAFE “would impose mandatory minimum sentences on higher-level drug traffickers rather than low-level offenders; apply life sentences for drug trafficking only in extreme cases; and allow eligible offenders to petition for re-sentencing under new trafficking laws.” The measure is gaining traction in the House, with 30 co-sponsors equally divided between Democrats and Republicans.

Fueling the bipartisan effort, House Speaker John Boehner backed the SAFE Act in a statement, declaring: “I’ve long believed that there needed to be reform of our criminal justice system…some of these people are in there under what I’ll call flimsy reasons.”

In the Senate, Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-TX) indicated that members of a bipartisan working group in the Judiciary Committee are “remarkably close” to a deal on legislation. “I don’t think it’s overly ambitious to say we can get a product to the president this year,” Cornyn remarked.

But Congress isn’t alone in tackling reform. President Obama, in a July 14 speech at the NAACP’s national convention in Philadelphia, strongly encouraged lowering—or eliminating entirely—mandatory minimums for nonviolent drug offenders. The president urged lawmakers to “pass a sentencing reform bill through Congress this year.”

In an era severely lacking in praise for lawmakers it is vital to celebrate those who forge progress in a bipartisan fashion. The formation of the bipartisan Criminal Justice and Public Safety Caucus and the introduction of the SAFE Act by Representatives Sensenbrenner and Scott indicate a Congress that is willing to work across the aisle on difficult issues. BPC applauds these bipartisan efforts and hopes they will encourage similar compromise on other issues facing our nation.

KEYWORDS: 114TH CONGRESS, BOBBY SCOTT, CEDRIC RICHMOND, F. JAMES SENSENBRENNER, HAKEEM JEFFRIES, JASON CHAFFETZ, JOHN BOEHNER, JOHN CORNYN, NAACP, PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA, RAUL LABRADOR, SAFE JUSTICE ACT, SENATE JUDICIARY COMMITTEE