Editorial: Congress should pass criminal justice reform

The Detroit News

Once strong hopes for Congress to enact meaningful criminal justice reforms are fading, as election year worries and old philosophical divides threaten what was thought of as one of the few possible bipartisan accomplishments in Washington.

Democrats and Republicans agree that federal justice policies no longer serve the needs of the nation. Last fall, a package of sensible reforms was approved on a 15-5 committee vote, and appeared heading to adoption.

The bills have powerful advocates in Texan John Cornyn, a former judge and prosecutor and the second-ranking Republican in the Senate, and Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, head of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

But the closer the calendar moves toward Election Day, the more nervous senators, particularly Republicans facing tough re-election fights this fall, are getting about passing any legislation that may be seen as soft on crime.

And Democrats have drawn a line in the sand over provisions that would limit federal prosecutors in using the threat of criminal charges to force corporate executives into making settlements.

Neither of those concerns are legitimate, nor should they derail a good package of reforms.

Among other things, the bills would reduce certain mandatory minimums for drug offenses, including trimming to 25 years the mandatory life sentences for three-time, non-violent drug offenders.

Far from placing violent felons back on the street, this reform would give judges more discretion in individual sentencing and allow the release of convicts who are no longer a threat to society, saving taxpayers money. Some of those now serving life sentences are little more than petty criminals who are taking up prison space better used to keep dangerous people off the streets.

It represents a sensible change in sentencing policy, and Republicans will face little pushback from their voters in backing the measure.

Similarly, Democrats should drop their objection to a bill to create a default intent, or mens rea, standard when federal law does not require a person to have knowledge that he or she was committing a crime to be criminally liable.

While Democrats see this as an escape hatch for corporate executives who willfully shield themselves from direct knowledge of criminal acts, it is more likely to protect small business owners, including farmers, who unwittingly run afoul of rapidly expanding regulations issued by federal agencies.

Other provisions would attempt to rein in regulatory overreach by requiring every federal agency to report to Congress each rule that could carry criminal penalties, so lawmakers can determine if they are appropriate.

The package also seeks to clean up the criminal code, getting rid of clutter and out-of-date language, which is a useful exercise.

Lawmakers may fear election year repercussions from some of the controversial elements of the bills. But they would likely gain more credibility and a better case for their re-election by demonstrating they can actually get important things done.