By Matt Sledge
The House Judiciary Committee created a bipartisan task force Tuesday to investigate whether the federal code over-criminalizes minor offenses. Advocates and lawmakers said the move could eventually help reduce the size of the massive federal prison population.
The over-criminalization task force was created by a Judiciary Committee voice vote. Members include staunch conservatives like Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.), Spencer Bachus (R-Alaska), and Louie Gohmert (R-Texas), along with progressives like Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.) and Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.). Outside Congress, supporters include organizations ranging from the Heritage Foundation to the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.
The task force's mandate is broad: to review the entirety of the estimated 4,500 federal crimes in the U.S. code. But progressives like Jeffries, who was active in attempting to reform New York's marijuana laws when he served as a state Assembly member, hope the task force's meetings will serve as an opportunity to narrow in on federal drug laws.
"It's my understanding that every issue is on the table, and this will be a really robust, bipartisan effort to take a look at the federal criminal code" Jeffries said. "I assume that as part of our comprehensive analysis, we will examine the drug laws in this country."
Families Against Mandatory Minimums, a nonprofit organization that lobbies to reduce inflexible mandatory sentences for drug crimes, issued a statement urging the task force to rethink long prison terms for non-violent drug offenses. A similar effort is already underway in the upper chamber, where Senators Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) introduced a bill in March to grant federal judges more sentencing discretion.
Two years ago, former Sen. Jim Webb (D-Va.) attempted to create a national commission to investigate criminal justice and the reasons the federal prison population is so massive. But a Republican filibuster blocked the bill then, in part over concerns that it could lead to marijuana legalization.
The House's task force is more of a legislative working group, not a blue-ribbon commission. Daniel Dew, a visiting fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation, said he believed the Republicans and Democrats sitting on the task force could find a way to work together.