06.12.15

Detroit Free Press: Overhaul of criminal justice system is long overdue

Over the last year, scenes from communities like Ferguson, Staten Island, Baltimore and Inkster have gripped the nation's attention.

These interactions between law enforcement and the communities they serve have invoked strong emotional responses for Americans, and we can no longer deny that there is a troubling and growing problem in our country.

Although our national attention has been focused on police practices, this is only one part of our complex criminal justice system that needs attention and scrutiny.

That's why I introduced bipartisan legislation — along with Republican Sens. John Cornyn of Texas and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina — that would create a National Criminal Justice Commission that would conduct an 18-month comprehensive review of our justice system from top to bottom. It is something that has not been done since 1965 — nearly 50 years ago.

Our prison populations continue to grow, and corrections costs are reaching unsustainable heights as public budgets tighten. Too many at-risk children are funneled out of schools and into the prison system. Our grand jury process lacks transparency, and many within the court system lack access to effective counsel. Too often, people in need of mental health services end up in the criminal justice system, and many ex-offenders who have served their time struggle to find jobs and re-enter society. It is clear that an overhaul of our entire criminal justice system is long overdue.

We need a better understanding of what causes these trends, and we need to identify solutions that will help us administer justice in a fair and equitable way and ensure that our government is working efficiently for taxpayers.

When President Lyndon B. Johnson's 1965 Commission on Law Enforcement and Administration of Justice conducted its review, it was the first time that police, prosecution, defense, courts and corrections were all examined as a whole. That commission made 202 recommendations to improve the criminal justice system, including creation of the 911 emergency system that is so ingrained in our society today.

Our country has changed significantly over the last 50 years, and it is long past the time for another top-to-bottom review of our entire criminal justice system. In fact, President Barack Obama's Task Force on 21st Century Policing, which was created after the troubling situation in Ferguson, strongly recommended such an effort.

The National Criminal Justice Commission my legislation would create consists of fourteen members, appointed by the U.S. Congress and the president, who are experts on law enforcement, victims' rights, civil liberties, mental health and social services, and will take that kind of comprehensive approach to reviewing the criminal justice system, in light of our current national climate. It will examine areas ranging from interactions between police and civilians to our juvenile justice system, grand juries and our courts to mental health, the state of our prisons and prisoner re-entry into society.

The commission's goal will be to identify and make recommendations to Congress and the president on commonsense solutions to the serious issues facing our nation to help promote fairness in our laws, build stronger relationships between law enforcement and our communities, and strengthen faith in our criminal justice system.

This commission is one crucial piece of a larger puzzle — we must also act now on things such as sentencing reform and oversight of federal programs that provide equipment to local law enforcement, so that our officers and the public are kept safe.

I'm proud to have a broad coalition of groups supporting this commission and its goals, including the Detroit Branch NAACP, the Police Officers Association of Michigan, the Michigan Fraternal Order of Police, the ACLU of Michigan and the Prosecuting Attorneys of Michigan.

We have reached a point where we can no longer deny that there is a troubling and growing problem in our country, and Congress must act now. The National Criminal Justice Commission is vital to understanding the reforms and best practices we need to reduce crime, help law enforcement do their jobs safely and effectively, protect our communities and build a justice system that works for every American.


By:  US Senator Gary Peters
Source: Detroit Free Press