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Why We Must Reform Our Criminal Justice System

One in every 31 adults in the United States is in prison, in jail, or on supervised release. Numbers only tell part of the story.
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America's criminal justice system is broken.

How broken? The numbers are stark:

• The United States has 5% of the world's population, yet possesses 25% of the world's prison population;

• More than 2.38 million Americans are now in prison, and another 5 million remain on probation or parole. That amounts to 1 in every 31 adults in the United States is in prison, in jail, or on supervised release;

• Incarcerated drug offenders have soared 1200% since 1980, up from 41,000 to 500,000 in 2008; and

• 60% of offenders are arrested for non-violent offensives--many driven by mental illness or drug addiction.

Numbers only tell part of the story.

While heavily focused on non-violent offenders, law enforcement has been distracted from pursuing the approximately one million gang members and drug cartels besieging our cities, often engaging in unprecedented levels of violence. Gangs in some areas commit 80% of the crimes and are heavily involved in drug distribution and other violent activities. This disturbing trend affects every community in the United States.

Ex-offenders are also confronted with a lack of meaningful re-entry programs. With the high volume of people who are coming out of prisons, it is in the self-interest of every American that national leadership design programs that provide former offenders a true pathway towards a productive future.

An examination is required as to what happens inside our prisons. Our correctional officers deserve better support in dealing with violent criminals under their supervision. It is also imperative that we facilitate a safe environment for all inmates, and examine ways to better prepare them for their release back into civil society. The de-humanizing environment of jails and prisons compounds these challenges.

Without question, it is in the national interest that we bring violent offenders and career criminals to justice. The purpose of this legislation is not to let dangerous or incorrigible people go free. Rather, it is to determine how best to structure our criminal justice system so that it is fair, appropriate and--above all--effective.

No American neighborhood is completely safe from the intersection of all of these problems.

Today, the Senate Judiciary Committee will hold a hearing on the National Criminal Justice Commission Act of 2009. This legislation, which I originally introduced in March, creates a Presidential level blue-ribbon commission charged with conducting an 18-month, top-to-bottom review of our nation's entire criminal justice system, ultimately providing the Congress with specific, concrete recommendations for reform.

The committee hearing can be seen via webcast live today at 3:00pm.

The goal of this legislation is nothing less than a complete restructuring of the criminal justice system in the United States. Only an outside commission, properly structured and charged, can bring us complete findings necessary to do so.

Fixing our system will require us to reexamine who goes to prison, for how long and how we address the long-term consequences of their incarceration. Our failure to address these problems cuts against the notion that we are a society founded on fundamental fairness.

Today's hearing "Exploring the National Criminal Justice Commission Act of 2009," chaired by cosponsor and Chairman of the Subcommittee on Crime and Drugs, Senator Arlen Specter and ranking Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, also a sponsor, provides a platform for Judiciary Committee members to hear witness testimony from a wide spectrum of political ideologies and backgrounds including my own statement, about the need to make this commission a reality.

The National Criminal Justice Commission Act has already garnered wide support from across the political and philosophical spectrum, including 29 sponsors in the Senate, among them many senior members of the Senate Judiciary Committee. My staff and I have engaged with more than 100 organizations and associations, representing the entire gamut of prosecutors, judges, defense lawyers, former offenders, advocacy groups, think tanks, victims rights organizations, academics, prisoners, and law enforcement on the street. This engagement is ongoing, and support continues to grow.

My goal, shared by Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, is to pass this legislation soon and to enact it into law this year. Obviously we appreciate any measure of support and assistance in this difficult undertaking. For more information, please visit my website,

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