Conyers pushes police accountability, crime reforms

Melissa Nann Burke
Detroit News Washington Bureau

Washington — Rep. John Conyers Jr. joined another Democrat on the House Judiciary panel this week in introducing a package of reform bills aimed at increasing police accountability in communities and revising youth incarceration practices nationwide.

“In recent months, there’s been an increase in the number of our citizens recognizing great faults in the national criminal justice system, and it’s critical we adopt smarter approaches dealing with those involved in the criminal justice system,” Conyers of Detroit said on Capitol Hill Wednesday.

“The nation’s attention is of course, focused on Waller County, Texas, and the case of Sandra Bland. The question is, how does a routine traffic stop lead to an arrest and a death in custody three days later?”

Authorities say Bland, 28, hanged herself in her jail cell, but family members say she wouldn’t have done so because she was excited about starting a new job in Texas. She was arrested July 10 after being pulled over for allegedly failing to use a turn signal.

“Though the vast majority of our police officers perform their duties in accord with the standards we expect and put their lives on the line,” Conyers said, “there’s unfortunately some whose actions have unjustly harmed citizens, sometimes resulting in death, jeopardizing the relationships of the police departments and the communities they serve.”

He and Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee of Texas want to provide federal grants for state and local law enforcement agencies that voluntarily seek accreditation and adopt concrete performance standards.

One bill, the Law Enforcement Trust and Integrity Act, would require the Department of Justice to create a task force to coordinate investigations and prosecutions of cases related to police misconduct. It also would force the adoption of uniform standards to enhance communities’ ability to hold law enforcement accountable, such as civilian-review procedures, and intervention and early-warning systems to identify bad habits and bad apples.

“Take that name very seriously,” Jackson Lee said, referring to the bill’s title, “because law enforcement requires the trust of the community.”

The legislation would also require local law-enforcement agencies to report data to the Department of Justice on traffic violation and pedestrian stops and detentions, as well as use of deadly force by and against police and other law enforcement officers.

The measures related to youth incarceration focus on those offenders who are 21 or younger at the time of their crimes.

Kalief’s Law is named for Kalief Browder, who killed himself last month after three years in prison at Riker’s Island after not being convicted of a crime. He spent roughly two years in solitary confinement.

Kalief’s Law would ban the use of solitary confinement for youth in federal facilities (he was 16 when arrested); end mandatory life imprisonment for youth; and create a review mechanism for imprisoned youth serving decades-long sentences to be transferred to supervised release, when appropriate.

The Bureau of Prisons would have to provide specialized housing and programs for incarcerated youth, and limit the length of time that youth could be incarcerated for technical probation violations.

The Fair Chance for Youth Act would allow formerly jailed youth and juveniles to to petition for expungment of federal misdemeanor and nonviolent drug offenses.

“We will have a long way to go, but that’s what we’re here for. To make things better – the sooner the better,” Conyers said.

Youth advocates stress the level of a juvenile’s brain development and maturity at the time that they enter the criminal justice system. Julie Stewart, president of the group Families Against Mandatory Minimums, noted that few young people perform well-informed, cost-benefit analysis before they make a big mistake.

Republican Rep. Bob Goodlatte, who chairs the Judiciary Committee, on Thursday thanked Conyers and Jackson Lee for their work on the package. “I look forward to reviewing their legislation and finding areas of common ground in order to improve our nation’s criminal justice system,” he said in a statement.

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