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Over-Criminalization Task Force In House Could Rethink Drug Laws

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NEW YORK -- 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.

"I think that there's wide enough consensus among the ideological spectrum that people have cover, if that makes sense, cover to not give in to the pressures of being 'tough on crime,'" he said.

Dew said both conservatives and liberals should be able to agree that federal statutes which create horror stories for the likes of Lawrence Lewis -- who was forced to plead guilty to a federal Clean Water Act violation over a nursing home's rerouted sewage system -- can be reformed. Dew said he would also like to see all the federal crimes collected in one central location so that people can easily reference them.

"Unfortunately there are criminal provisions, criminal statutes, strewn throughout the U.S. Code, and one of the tenets of our criminal justice system is that people should be on notice of what's against the law," he said.

Jennifer Bellamy, a legislative counsel with the American Civil Liberties Union, said her organization would push changes to the criminal code that could reduce the size of the federal prison population.

"I think the fiscal crisis has really created an opportunity for some bipartisan alliances on the issue. I think a lot of folks are concerned about the cost" of mass incarceration, she said.

The Obama administration's 2014 budget request includes $8.5 billion for prisons and detention.

Jeffries, a Congressional freshman, said he wasn't willing lay odds on the chances of the task force's recommendations making it into law this year.

However, he added, "if you look at the composition of the committee, there are people who cover a wide range of the ideological spectrum -- I don't need to name names."

"That's a wonderful thing and gives me great encouragement that under the leadership of the chairman of the task force, as well as at the Judiciary (Committee) level, we can really come up with some bipartisan solutions."

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this piece said the federal prison population had "only just begun to wane after decades of increases. In fact, the federal prison population continues to grow; it is the combined state and federal prison population that has begun to decrease.

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