Roadmap for Criminal Justice Reform
A functioning justice system must work to protect the innocent, while simultaneously holding accountable and rehabilitating those who commit crimes. We must comprehensively overhaul a criminal justice system that, in its current form, is guided by outdated laws and perpetuates structural failures in society. Our judicial system sets up those who have offended and served their sentences to continued failure, even after they have served their time.
As a nation, we incarcerate more of our own citizens than any other country in the world – often times for non-violent drug offenses. Past reforms meant to keep our communities safer have resulted in disproportionately high incarceration rates among people of color, splitting families apart and helping to continue cycles of poverty. Despite the creation of innovative tools at the local level in King County to institute diversionary “safety valve” mental health, drug rehabilitation, and veterans treatment courts, these resources do not currently exist at the federal level. Communities of color still face disproportionate mandatory minimum sentences, with charges often stacking on top of one another. The vast majority of inmates leaving prison face long-term unemployment, with employers often unwilling to consider them due to their records.
As a former prosecutor, I have had a unique exposure to the intricacies of our judicial system. The men and women who work in law enforcement, as prosecutors, public defenders, judges, and corrections officers shoulder the immense duty of keeping our communities safe. These individuals must uphold this responsibility while at the same time assuring that the system remains fair and balanced, and that individuals are treated and judged equally under the law. The time has come to make important adjustments to the way we handle criminal justice in our country.
- Overhauling Our Judicial System: Cosponsor of H.R. 2435, the Justice Safety Valve Act – Federal mandatory minimums must be rolled back. These laws have created massive disparities, with communities of color facing dramatically higher rates of incarceration. This bill would allow judges to break from mandatory minimum penalties, assessing lower sentences where appropriate. I have consistently opposed any legislation that imposes new mandatory minimums – this one size fits all approach cannot continue.
- Ending Private Prisons and Restoring Fairness to the System: Cosponsor of H.R. 3227, the Justice is Not For Sale Act - As a country, we must end the practice of turning the incarceration of citizens into a business transaction. I am an original cosponsor of the Justice is Not For Sale Act. This legislation, also introduced by Senator Bernie Sanders in the U.S. Senate, would end all private prison contracts at the federal, state, and local level – including immigration detention facilities. H.R. 3227 would also reinstate the federal parole system to allow the US Sentencing Commission to make individualized, risk-based determinations regarding each prisoner.
- Ending Racial Profiling: Original Cosponsor of H.R. 1498, the End Racial Profiling Act – legislation prohibiting any law enforcement agent or agency from engaging in racial profiling, and also allows for any individual injured by racial profiling the right to file a lawsuit. H.R. 1498 requires federal law enforcement to develop and maintain policies to eliminate profiling, and require state/local/tribal law enforcement agencies who apply for certain federal grants to develop similar policies.
- Ensuring Transparency: Original Cosponsor of H.R. 1870, the Police Training and Independent Review Act – To receive federal law enforcement grants under this bill, states must pass laws requiring the appointment of a special prosecutor to review cases where an officer is a defendant, including officer-involved shootings. It also requires training on racial and ethnic bias at law enforcement academies.
- Providing Legal Help to Those In Need: I support funding for Legal Services Corporation (LSC), the single largest funder of civil legal aid for low-income Americans and signed on to a letter to appropriators asking to increase their funding for the LSC and voted against amendments that would have shifted funding away.
- Helping With Reentry: Cosponsor of H.R. 2899, the Second Chance Act - legislation that would reauthorize the Second Chance Act, which continues funding for reentry programs at the state and local levels that have been proven to reduce recidivism, lead to better outcomes for those released from prison, and lower the amount our nation spends on incarceration. We lock up more of our own people than any other country in the world.
- Equal Employment Opportunities through Banning the Box: Cosponsor of H.R. 1905, the Fair Chance Act -This “ban the box” legislation prohibits federal agencies and primary federal contractors from asking about an applicant’s criminal history on an initial employment application. This legislation allows applicants who have completed their prison sentences to build a strong foundation for a career.
Leadership at the federal level is critical to ensure wider enactment of restorative justice programs like those spearheaded by Washington State. As we work towards common-sense reforms to our criminal justice system, I greatly value the continuing information, opinions and experiences shared with me by my constituents about these critical topics. We must chart a new course if we are to build a stronger tomorrow.
Everyone has the right to be treated equally under the law and to have the peace of mind that they and their loved ones will not be subject to excessive use of force or bias by law enforcement. It is critical that trust exists between law enforcement and the communities they serve.
In order to rebuild and preserve relationships between the judicial and law enforcement systems and the communities, it is crucial that safety and transparency are prioritized. While the vast majority of law enforcement officers in our country operate with the highest degree of professionalism and without bias, the specter of racial profiling has greatly impacted relationships with some communities of color. It is critical that we address the underlying issues that have created such divides.
It is for that reason that I have cosponsored legislation that would establish pilot grant programs through the Department of Justice (DOJ) using existing funding to assist state, local, and tribal law enforcement agencies with the costs of purchasing or leasing Body Worn Cameras (BWCs). In the wake of the recent alarming events involving law enforcement across the country, body-worn cameras have emerged as a potentially powerful transparency tool to communities, as well as police officers. The use of cameras is not a perfect solution, and the DOJ must conduct studies on the impact of BWCs on not only reducing excessive use of force by police, but also increasing accountability of officers, the effects of BWCs on both officer safety and public safety, and best practices for data management.
I also support and have cosponsored legislation designed to enforce the constitutional right to equal protection of the laws by changing the policies and procedures underlying the practice of profiling, such as the End Racial Profiling Act. I have consistently supported programs such as the Byrne Justice Assistance Grants (JAG) and Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) programs to improve the support and responsiveness that police agencies can provide to the communities they serve. The Byrne JAG program provides support for many parts of the criminal justice system, including community-based criminal justice initiatives, crime prevention education, hiring patrol officers, and programs such as veterans treatment courts. Byrne JAG also supports anti-human trafficking training for local departments to identify and rescue victims through coordination with federal law enforcement and victims service providers. The COPS Office and its corresponding programs provide invaluable resources and technical assistance to state and local law enforcement agencies. It is essential, now more than ever, that these programs be used to encourage reforms, increase training for law enforcement officers, and create trust through community outreach.
I am committed to working with my colleagues to find additional avenues to protect civil liberties, increase transparency, and work to address bedrock issues that have frayed the trust between law enforcement and communities in many parts of the country.
Comprehensive Drug Policy
There is a rapidly growing opioid abuse epidemic in our nation and the need for comprehensive treatment has never been greater. The abuse and addiction to opioids such as heroin, morphine, and prescription pain relievers is a serious problem that affects the health, social, and economic welfare of all societies. According to the 2013 National Survey on Drug Use and Health 1.9 million people in the United States suffered from substance use disorders related to prescription opioid pain medicines in 2013 and 517,000 suffered from a heroin use disorder. The number of unintentional overdose deaths from prescription opioids has soared in recent years, more than multiplying since 1999.
This crisis has had a devastating effect on public health and safety in communities across the United States. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), drug overdose deaths now surpass traffic crashes in the number of deaths caused by injury in the U.S, with an average of 120 drug related deaths per day in 2014. Factors such as drastic increases in the number of prescriptions written and dispensed and greater social acceptability for using medications for different purposes has contributed to the growing epidemic of opioid addictions.
While I ultimately am pleased that Congress has begun to address the serious and growing challenge posed by the abuse of prescription and illicit opioids in this country with the passage of the Comprehensive Opioid Abuse Reduction Act in May 2016, the compromise bill failed to include additional emergency funding to support new programs. It is absolutely essential that we recognize the evidence-based fact that remanding these individuals to jail and prison is structurally, as well as morally, wrong. Funding grant programs and other new initiatives is a critical responsibility of Congress that cannot be ignored. More can and must be done to make this a truly comprehensive approach.
Legalization Clarity on Marijuana
On November 6, 2012, Washington State voters approved Initiative Measure 502 concerning recreational use of marijuana with 55.7 percent of the vote. The Washington State Liquor and Cannabis Board is responsible for issuing licenses for growing, producing, and selling marijuana.
Looking at the legal implications of this issue, I am deeply concerned about the conflicts between federal and state law. While it is legal to possess and use a limited quantity of marijuana under state law, marijuana remains an illegal substance under federal statutes. This lack of clarity is unacceptable. Individuals following state law should not be subject to federal enforcement. As Washington state’s marijuana law continues to be implemented, it is critical that the confusion and disagreement between federal and state laws be reconciled.
Though much work remains to be done, the Drug Enforcement Administration’s (DEA) decision to expand research opportunities on marijuana is a sign of progress. It is my sincere hope that the loosening of the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) research monopoly will foster new information, and further the conversations about federal-level policy.
While the limited enforcement direction that the DOJ has taken is a positive step, I remain concerned about possible prosecution of Washington State residents who are acting in accordance with state law. I have contacted DOJ numerous times about this issue, and along with other Members of Congress, asking that the DOJ respect voters acting in accordance with state laws, and not enforce federal marijuana laws on those in compliance. I have also spoken directly with officials in the White House and DOJ expressing my concerns. I am committed to protecting the rights of residents in Washington State, and will continue to look for any avenue to ensure legal clarity when it comes to marijuana use.
For more information on this issue, sign up to receive Congressman Smith’s email updates.