Sen. Gary Peters (D-Mich.) introduced a bill Tuesday that he said would be a preliminary step towards overhauling the criminal justice system in the wake of violent protests over policing in Baltimore and other cities around the country.
The National Criminal Justice Commission Act of 2015 would create the first national commission on criminal justice since 1965, Peters said in a call with media Tuesday. The legislation was referred to the Senate Committee on the Judiciary and has the support of two of its Republican members, Lindsey Graham (S.C.) and John Cornyn (Texas).
Under the proposal, Congress and the president would appoint 14 experts in law enforcement, civil liberties, victims rights and other areas to review the criminal justice system. The group would have 18 months to issue recommendations aimed at increasing public safety and improving relations between communities and law enforcement.
"Whether we're talking about Ferguson or Inkster, Staten Island, North Charleston or what we're seeing actually right now in Baltimore, it’s clear that the relationship between law enforcement and our communities is strained, and it's probably long overdue to have an overhaul of our criminal justice system,” Peters said.
In each city Peters mentioned, a police encounter resulted in the death or injury of a black man, sparking protests. In Baltimore, Freddie Gray died of a spinal injury he sustained while in police custody earlier this month. Six officers have been suspended, and the exact circumstances of his death are being investigated. Protests erupted following Gray’s funeral Monday, leading to instances of violence and looting.
Improving community relations and protecting citizens' civil rights will be two of the top concerns of the commission, Peters said. He added that fixing the grand jury system was also paramount, referencing the lack of an indictment in the death of Eric Garner, who died after being placed in a chokehold by a New York officer.
Peters also said the commission will examine local practices of using the justice system to create revenue, and study the prison system and the success of integrating ex-offenders back into society.
Lawmakers have tried and failed to create a criminal justice commission with similar legislation. Peters said he expects the unrest in Baltimore and nationwide clashes over policing to give his bipartisan bill more momentum.
"More and more Americans realize that something does not seem to be working right, when they turn on their TV and they see what has been happening around the country," Peters said. "So I think the time is right."
Some representing the interests of law enforcement backed the bill as well.
“In too many instances, the line police officer is forgotten about in the making of decisions for the law enforcement community,” Police Officers Association of Michigan Legislative Director Kenneth E. Grabowski said in a statement supporting the bill. “But, when things go bad, it's the line officer who first gets blamed. It is time for a major review.”
Establishing a national commission to study the criminal justice system was the first, overarching recommendation in a March report by the President's Task Force on 21st Century Policing, formed in December.