Lawmakers on Thursday peddled their ideas to the House Judiciary Committee on how to reform the criminal justice system, which spanned from preventing police departments from investigating their own officers to limiting the amount of property that cops are able to seize and sell for a profit.
More than a dozen Congress members showed up to a midmorning committee congressional listening session to pitch their reform proposals in the wake of the committee’s announcement that it planned to overhaul the nation’s system.
The House Judiciary Committee, which has primary jurisdiction over the U.S. Criminal Code, will be taking incremental steps toward revamping that system throughout the next several months, and Thursday’s listening session was a first step in that process.
Rep. Tim Walberg, Michigan Republican, said that he wanted to see legislation passed that would keep police departments from making lucrative profits off of civil asset forfeiture, the practice of seizing personal property like cash and cars from criminal suspects. Cops then keep that property — which they often won’t have to return even if the person is never convicted of a crime — for the department’s use, Mr. Walberg said.
Police policing police also needs to end, said Rep. Henry C. “Hank” Johnson, Georgia Democrat, calling for an end to the practice of law enforcement agencies investigating their own people. Those investigations need to be more transparent so that law enforcement officers who have committed illegal actions and tried to hide them pay for those crimes, he said.
“Most of us feel that our police officers, our sworn law enforcement officers, are always in the right,” he said. “But the fact is, you know, even though 95 [percent] to 98 percent — I would speculate — of our police officers are professional and trying to do the right thing and do a good job, there’s an element there among them that makes them all look bad.”
Other lawmakers brought with them tales of constituents who had experienced personal hardships due to laws often used against lower-income families who have no means of paying the fees and fines associated with the judicial system.
Rep. Grace Meng, New York Democrat, recounted how Kalief Browder, 22, spent three years in Rikers Island, New York City’s main jail complex, being assaulted by fellow inmates and prison guards. Mr. Browder was arrested in 2010 for allegedly stealing a backpack.
He endured dangerous circumstances and spent months in solitary confinement because he did not have the financial means necessary to post bail and declined to enter a plea agreement, Ms. Meng said. He eventually committed suicide after the charges against him were dropped, she said.
“This is unacceptable,” she said. “Monetary bail has a disproportionate impact on lower-income individuals and their families.”
The inability to pay bail “significantly factors into an individual’s willingness to enter into plea bargaining,” she said. That is why she says the committee should consider updating federal guidelines on pretrial detention.
Law enforcement experts and organization leaders bristled at the idea of lawmakers crafting legislative plans that would alter the way the nation’s police departments function without first consulting with the individuals that their legislation would affect.
The “pie in the sky” feel-good ideas that legislators favor and academics tend to propose often do not translate well into real-world actions, said National Association of Police Organizations Executive Director Bill Johnson. Additionally, Congress needs to exercise great caution before making any decisions that might restrict the ability of police to defend themselves.
“I think it’s important to have rank-and-file’s input from the very start,” he said. “And I think that the recommendations that they may come up with or the changes that they may want to make won’t get any traction in the real world unless the police perspective is taken into account.”
Lawmakers need to engage police, and U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch, who has made police reform her priority, at the beginning of their criminal justice reform conversation rather than after they have moved forward with poorly planned legislation, said Jon Adler, president of the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association.
“Embrace this law enforcement stakeholder up front rather than at the end,” he said.
Without that input, the dialogue between the nation’s elected officials could easily devolve into a “cop-bashing session,” he said.
Some lawmakers seemed to express similar concerns during the listening session about focusing less on the small issues and rather on committing to actions that are “really big.”
Meaningful reform needs to be made while the momentum is there to make it, said Rep. Cedric L. Richmond, Louisiana Democrat.
“I think that if you look at the synergy that has come together from the ACLU to the NAACP to The Heritage Foundation to the Koch brothers — I think we have spanned the gambit on both fringes, and we could really, really do something big and also make the country safer,” he said.