Support Urged for Criminal Justice Commission

Melvin Wilson“We promote a fair system that keeps society safe, but also works to reduce recidivism,” said NASW’s Melvin Wilson.

NASW is urging support of the National Criminal Justice Commission Act, which calls for the creation of a bipartisan commission charged with a comprehensive review of the nation’s criminal justice system.

If approved, it will study all areas of the criminal justice system, including federal, state, local and tribal governments’ criminal justice costs, practices and policies. After the review, the commission would make recommendations for changes in — or continuation of oversight of — policies, practices and laws designed to prevent, deter and reduce crime and violence, improve cost-effectiveness and ensure the interests of justice.

Melvin Wilson, affirmative action officer and manager of workforce development and training at NASW, said the criminal justice system is long overdue for a congressional review, noting that the last one was 40 years ago.

“NASW is part of a workgroup supporting this bill,” Wilson explained. “It’s vital that we are involved and help promote the appointment of a social services expert to serve on this commission.”

Social workers advocate for social justice and criminal reform efforts, Wilson said. “We promote a fair system that keeps society safe, but also works to reduce recidivism,” he said.

Social workers are directly and indirectly involved in criminal justice service delivery, he noted. “We are a major part of the workforce,” he said.

A top concern for the creation of the commission is the fact that the U.S. has the highest incarceration rate of all industrialized nations. Paying for incarceration is a major strain on budgets and states continue to struggle with the expense as the recession lags, Wilson said. “By reducing the prison population, it takes pressure off the budgets,” he noted.

Jim WebbSen. Jim Webb, D-Va.: “Our broken criminal justice system isn’t a liberal or conservative problem.”

Sen. Jim Webb, D-Va., introduced the Senate bill, S. 714, last year. The Senate Judiciary Committee approved the legislation in January with 37 bipartisan co-sponsors. Webb recently joined his colleagues in the House of Representatives in announcing the introduction of the House version of the bill, H.R. 5143, sponsored by Rep. William Delahunt, D-Mass.

“Our broken criminal justice system isn’t a liberal or conservative problem — it is a problem that we have to address in a comprehensive way, with everyone at the table,” Webb said at a press conference. “Our bill has advanced out of the Judiciary Committee in the Senate and garnered broad support from across the political spectrum. I want you to ask yourself the last time you saw a piece of criminal justice legislation that was supported universally by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, the Fraternal Order of Police, the Marijuana Policy Institute, the NAACP, the ACLU and the American Bar Association.”

U.S. Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., a co-sponsor of the House bill, joined Webb in supporting the need for a National Criminal Justice Commission. “Our justice system is expensive, makes mistakes, and too often fails to shield the public from dangerous criminals,” Issa said. “We appreciate Sen. Webb leading the charge. Today we have true bipartisan and bicameral support. The opportunity to learn lessons from failures, along with the promise of new technologies and systems, make conducting a high-level examination of our justice system a worthwhile effort. There is certainly room to correct shortcomings while preserving the pillars of our legal system.”

At the press conference, Delahunt said: “The bill we introduced today will create a bipartisan commission to undertake a comprehensive review of our nation’s criminal justice system for the first time in 40 years. I want to commend Sen. Webb for his extraordinary and tireless work in the Senate, and look forward to working with my colleagues ... on this vital legislation that seeks to promote the interests of justice and public safety.”

Rep. Marcia Fudge, D-Ohio, also spoke. “Our current system severely punishes non-violent offenders while often granting violent criminals freedom and unfettered opportunities to menace our communities,” she said. “The commission would provide recommendations to address these problems.”

At press time, the bill was being reviewed by the House Judiciary Committee. Wilson said social workers are urged to ask their representatives in Washington to support the National Criminal Justice Commission Act.

“We need all the co-sponsors we can get and we hope it will pass before the summer recess,” Wilson said.

Support for the bill is the latest effort by NASW to back programs that call for safe and socially responsible criminal justice reform.

The association stood behind passage of the Second Chance Act in 2008 and the appropriations process to fund the bill’s goal of reducing the prisoner recidivism rate. This is being done through federal grants that support community and faith-based programs that offer such services as employment assistance, substance abuse treatment, housing, mentoring and family programming.

According to the Reentry Policy Council, $25 million was appropriated in fiscal year 2009 for Second Chance Act programs, including $15 million for state and local re-entry demonstration projects and $10 million for grants to nonprofit organizations for mentoring and other transitional services.

In fiscal year 2010, $114 million was appropriated for prisoner re-entry programs at the Department of Justice, including $14 million for re-entry initiatives in the Federal Bureau of Prisons and $100 million for Second Chance Act grant programs, which included $37 million for re-entry demonstration projects.