WASHINGTON - The U.S. House of Representatives passed bipartisan legislation tonight sponsored by Rep. William Delahunt (D-MA) which would create a national commission to study the U.S. criminal justice system and make recommendations for reform. The bill passed under an expedited process that presumes unanimity unless a member of Congress objects. No member objected.
“It is a sign of how quickly the tide has turned against punitive criminal justice policies that this bill passed without opposition,” said Bill Piper, director of national affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance. “Prisons are overflowing at great taxpayer expense, in large part because of the failed war on drugs, and members of Congress are finally saying enough is enough, we need ideas for reform.”
The bill comes at a time that the UnitedState’s growing prison population – fueled by the war on drugs - is becoming a political issue. The United States ranks first in the world in per capita incarceration rates, with just five 5 percent of the world’s population but 25 percent of the world’s prisoners. Roughly 500,000 Americans are behind bars any given night for a drug law violation. That is ten times the total in 1980, and more than all of western Europe (with a much larger population) incarcerates for all offenses.
Across the country – from California to Texas to New York – legislatures, and in some cases voters, are passing legislation to divert offenders to treatment instead of jail, reform mandatory minimum sentencing, and treat drug use more as a health issue instead of criminal justice issue. These efforts – motivated by concerns for saving taxpayer money, reducing racial disparities, and showing more compassion for people struggling with substance abuse problems - are gaining steam.
The House bill is identical to a bill in the U.S. Senate introduced by Sen. Jim Webb (D-VA). That bill has passed the Senate Judiciary Committee and will most likely be voted on in the full Senate sometime this year. Sen. Webb (D-VA) has said, “either we have the most evil people in the world or we are doing something wrong with the way we approach the issue of criminal justice.” And “the central role of drug policy in filling our nation's prisons makes clear that our approach to curbing illegal drug use is broken.”
It is widely believed that the national commission created by Sen. Webb’s and Rep. Delahunt’s legislation would make recommendations for reducing incarceration, reforming U.S. drug policy, eliminating racial and gender disparities, improving re-entry efforts, and expanding access to substance abuse treatment, mental health services and health care.
“The House has spoken decisively. Now it is time for Senators to act,” Piper said. “Sen. Webb’s and Rep. Delahunt’s bipartisan commission legislation needs to be passed quickly before the war on drugs and punitive criminal justice system bankrupt our country and destroy more lives.”