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Criminal Justice Reform Efforts Move Forward At State Level

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Eric Lieberman Deputy Editor

The federal government hasn’t passed criminal justice reform legislation recently, but state and city governments have.

Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas argues this is because there is not as much concurrence on this issue among his federal colleagues. “It’s deeply divisive within the Senate and the House as well…not many senators or congressmen want to be responsible for the murder or rape of innocent civilians out on the street.”

But in the past few years, from Maryland to Philadelphia to Oregon, there have been substantial changes to independent criminal justice systems, which seems to run counter to the tough-on-crime mantra.

Philadelphia’s City Council held a public hearing in May with the purpose of fostering discussions about the criminal justice system and its larger impact on the community. Democratic Councilman Kenyatta Johnson voiced his pleasure “that the discussion is focusing on public safety as a public health epidemic.” The panel included elected council members, retired law enforcement agents, attorneys and professors. More reform is imminent in the country’s fifth largest city, which effectively decriminalized marijuana possession in October of 2014.

Several pieces of legislation that modify law enforcement protocol have been passed in Oregon. The state’s 78th Legislative Assembly passed House Bill 2002, which explicitly states that “all law enforcement agencies shall have written policies and procedures prohibiting profiling.” Other laws passed were Senate Bill 839, which established protections for people seeking help in the event of an overdose, Senate Bill 908, which allowed for more leeway on expungements, and House Bill 3025, which forbids employers from asking for criminal background checks up front.

In Maryland, many ordinances are employing special programs for certain criminal charges, especially for the youth. In Prince George’s County, convicted criminals can be sentenced to the “Back on Track” program. Calvin Davis, 21, of Landover, and three others were the first to be accepted into the program following drug possession charges.

Along with community service and steady attendance at Prince George’s Community College, participants of the program must also undergo scheduled drug tests.

A similar program was employed in San Francisco.

New Jersey officials recently voted to grant more power to judges when deciding to release defendants who committed low-level crimes and cannot afford bail. The Vera Institute of Justice did an exhaustive study on almost all state-level reforms to the criminal justice system. The report, “Justice in Review: New Trends in State Sentencing and Corrections 2014-2015,” shows a clear inclination for states to alter their respective criminal codes.

But there are still opponents to criminal justice reform. During a speech taking place at The Hudson Institute, Cotton flipped the typical term over-incarceration, which is often peppered in his opponents’ monologues to describe what he sees as an epidemic in America. Cotton lambasted some of his colleagues endeavors, declaring, “law enforcement is able to arrest or identify a likely perpetrator for only 19 percent of property crimes and 47 percent of violent crimes. If anything, we have an under-incarceration problem.”

Fellow Republican Sens. David Perdue of Georgia and Jim Risch of Idaho vehemently agree. In fact, according to source close to the Republican Party, Risch asked, “Shouldn’t the GOP be a party of law and order?”

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