Panel Reauthorizes Over-Criminalization Task Force

Post Date: February 5, 2014

(CQ Roll Call) — The House Judiciary Committee met Wednesday to renew a bipartisan task force created last year to examine ways to reverse what lawmakers on both sides of Capitol Hill view as a trend toward “over-criminalization” in the U.S. justice system.

Established in May, the task force has held a series of hearings to review federal criminal law and indicated early on that its work would extend beyond its initial six-month charter that lapsed Nov. 30.

On Wednesday, the Judiciary Committee adopted a resolution by voice vote renewing the panel’s authority — a step that requires no further action by the House. The renewal will last another six months, until Aug. 5.

The 10-member task force is led by Jim Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., and Robert C. Scott, D-Va., and consists of eight other Judiciary Committee members: Republicans Spencer Bachus of Alabama, Louie Gohmert of Texas, Raúl R. Labrador of Idaho and George Holding of North Carolina, along with Democrats Steve Cohen of Tennessee, Karen Bass of California, Hakeem Jeffries of New York and Hank Johnson of Georgia.

Johnson is new to the panel, replacing New York Democrat Jerrold Nadler. Judiciary Chairman Robert W. Goodlatte, R-Va., and ranking Democrat John Conyers Jr. of Michigan serve as ex officio panel members.

Goodlatte said Wednesday that the task force would soon conduct a review of federal sentencing policy, a move that mirrors an effort already underway across the Capitol. The Senate Judiciary Committee is working through legislative measures designed to reduce criminal penalties and expand rehabilitative programs for inmates.

The Senate panel could advance legislation (S 1675, S 1783) on Thursday that would let certain inmates participating in recidivism reduction programs qualify for earlier releases. Last week, it backed a measure (S 1410) to reduce mandatory minimum sentences for some drug crimes. A House companion (HR 3382) has yet to see legislative action.

Conyers voiced support Wednesday for the over-criminalization task force to review what he called “the scourge of mandatory minimums,” especially for nonviolent drug offenses.

“While there’s no doubt that some of these inmates are where they deserve to be, many others should be able to become productive members of our society,” Conyers said. “But mandatory minimums, which limit judicial discretion, prevent this from happening, and they’ve not made our nation any safer.”

Some lawmakers and many criminal justice advocates say the mandatory penalties are excessive and are a major factor in the growing size and cost of the federal correctional system. Read more