Senate GOP Votes Down Jim Webb’s Criminal Justice Reform Bill

Friday, October 21st, 2011

And on pretty dubious grounds.

The measure calls for creating a 14-member bipartisan commission with a $5 million budget to examine all levels of the justice system – federal, state and local. It is intended to lead to recommendations on how to change laws, enforcement practices and prison operations to make the justice system fairer and more cost-effective. The panel would have to complete its work in 18 months.

Two Republican senators, Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas and Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, spoke against the amendment, saying that allowing a federal commission to examine state and local criminal justice systems would encroach on states’ rights and that the commission’s $5 million budget should be used for other purposes.

Hutchison said studying the federal system is within Congress’ powers but including state and local justice systems “is an overreach of gigantic proportions.”

“We are absolutely ignoring the Constitution if we do this,” Coburn said.

A majority of senators supported Webb’s amendment, 57-43, but it fell three votes short of the 60 needed to be added to a spending bill.

Webb blamed Republicans for blocking the legislation and vowed after the vote to keep pressing for the commission.

“Their inflammatory arguments defy reasonable explanation and were contradicted by the plain language of our legislation,” Webb said in a prepared statement. “To suggest, for example, that the nonbinding recommendations of a bipartisan commission threaten the Constitution is absurd.”

Absurd is right. If state and local law enforcement officials, prosecutors, courts, and prisons are violating the constitutional rights of their residents, then there’s a clear 14th Amendment justification for federal involvement.

But let’s be honest, here. This is some pretty blatantly selective fidelity to the Constitution. The drug war is as direct and aggressive an assault on federalism and the power of states and localities to make their own criminal justice policy as anything else the federal government does. Yet Hutchison, Coburn and the rest of the GOP senators who killed the Webb bill all support it. They also support all sorts of federal grants to local police departments. They all support letting the Pentagon give military equipment to local police departments.

Along comes a bill that would create a committee to make some non-binding suggestions that, if followed, may make it less likely that someone will be wrongfully imprisoned, or beaten by cops, or otherwise  get screwed over by the criminal justice system, and suddenly all of these GOP senators get a case of the constitutional vapors.

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42 Responses to “Senate GOP Votes Down Jim Webb’s Criminal Justice Reform Bill”

  1. #1 |  b | 

    in your last sentence, i think you mean “less likely”.

  2. #2 |  Radley Balko | 

    You’re right. Thanks.

  3. #3 |  Mattocracy | 

    “the commission’s $5 million budget should be used for other purposes”

    Like $5 mill really amounts to anything in a $3-$4 trillion budget.

  4. #4 |  a_random_guy | 

    You make a huge assumption that the commission would make recommendations that would help prevent wrongful imprisonments, help prevent violations of rights, etc, etc.

    This is a federal commission. In recent history, pretty much everything that the federal government does, goes in the opposite direction. The recommendations of this commission may well be *more* SWAT raids, *less* presecutorial discretion (zero tolerance, ya know), *more* warrentless searches, etc, etc..

  5. #5 |  Rob Lyman | 

    I don’t see a constitutional problem, but there is the “worthless waste of time and money” problem.

    No doubt the criminal justice systems (and we have thousands of them, not one unified “system”) of this country could use some study and improvement, but given the history of Congressional commissions, smart money is against this one accomplishing anything.

  6. #6 |  Difster | 

    I’m pretty sure this bill isn’t a GOOD IDEA.

    It sounds good on the face of it, but once this commission gets its teeth in to things, it will push for it’s “recommendations” to be regulations. Also, when the commission becomes politicized, it will morph in to something that will not be in the interests of liberty or justice.

    You’re not thinking long term on this one Radley.

  7. #7 |  John Regan | 

    There are dangers in the Congress doing anything – was it Lincoln who said no man’s life nor property are safe whilst the legislature sits! – but I think this is a missed opportunity. Federalism concerns do not appear unless and until some tangible thing to be done is sought, as opposed to just studying the problem. Good for Jim Webb for going out on a limb and alienating certain powerful constituencies like police, prison guards, prosecutors, and so on.

  8. #8 |  Mad Rocket Scientist | 

    So wait, it’s ok to give federal money to state law enforcement, but not OK to tell them how to behave if they want more money; but it is ok for government to tell poor people how to behave if they want welfare money?

    OK, I got it.

  9. #9 |  Mattocracy | 

    For those who think this bill is a bad idea, what’s the solution? I’m sympathetic to the view point that these commissions could make recommendations that will make things worse, but there have been plenty of other examples where these commissions make good recommendations. Just the other week Radley linked to a story where a commission suggested to the Governator to video tap all interrogations in California.

    In my amatuer opinion, I think the potential for good out weighs the potential for bad in this case.

  10. #10 |  Rob Lyman | 

    There probably isn’t anything you can call The Solution. How is your local DA? What about your local sheriff/chief? Does your state allow forfeiture in the absence of convictions? Etc. Bottom up solutions are more likely to help than top-down.

  11. #11 |  Yizmo Gizmo | 

    How do you get an out of control, money-driven Incarceration
    machine, and the bureaucratic and legal/political cronies who support it, to clip their own wings?
    I bet the Police Unions are denouncing this even as we speak.
    And we all know, they’re pretty objective.

  12. #12 |  Danny | 

    This might be a good idea if the needed reforms were not so already blindingly looking-at-the-sun-through-a-telescope obvious.

    The commission’s highest possible outcome would be little more than a modest PR drive for some rollbacks on government power that are already well-known and popular with the public, but anathema to politicians who count on government unions for support in low-turnout state and local elections.

  13. #13 |  Juice | 

    Something tells me the commission will blow the money and come back with “looks pretty good to us” or “needs more training.”

  14. #14 |  Michael Chaney | 

    Interesting to blame it on the GOP. The senate is still controlled by the Dems, right?

  15. #15 |  David | 


    “A majority of senators supported Webb’s amendment, 57-43, but it fell three votes short of the 60 needed to be added to a spending bill.”

  16. #16 |  Mattocracy | 

    I like the idea of bottom up solutions, but what places like Maricopa County where the voting populace really doesn’t care about justice reforms at the expense of those harmed by miscarriages of jutice?

    The main objective of our federal government is to protect and maintain our constitutional rights from those who wish to deny them to us, even if those deniers are state and local governments. Keep in mind, there was a time when the Feds would combat local authorities in the south that would deny people their civil rights. I believe in local control but I think in this case the feds are the only means to combat an entrenched power base that local voting hasn’t been able to hold accountable.

  17. #17 |  Rob Lyman | 

    Two things: some places are going to be shitholes no matter what, and we probably need to accept that at some point, the marginal cost of fixing some of these places is too high. If the voters really do favor injustice, then it’s going to be really tough to fix that.

    The other thing is that the worst places are not going to be fixed by some vague (or even highly specific) recommendations from some forgettable policy committee. A DoJ investigation and lawsuit/prosecution might help (maybe not if the voters are pretty committed to their local government and resent DC interference). A white paper will not.

  18. #18 |  Dante | 

    Webb’s proposal had little chance.

    It would have directly impacted the prison/LE/Industrial complex, in a negative way.

    As we have all seen, there is no way for American citizens to get our politicians/cops/industrialists to derail their own gravy train.

  19. #19 |  Deoxy | 

    A DoJ investigation and lawsuit/prosecution might help

    … or might hurt – some of the things the DoJ does are not in the interest of justice (the current DoJ is more obvious about it, but the problem has existed for some time).

  20. #20 |  Mark Z. | 

    The senate is still controlled by the Dems, right?

    The senate is controlled by millionaires.

  21. #21 |  George E | 

    “This is some pretty blatantly selective fidelity to the Constitution.” You mean like Webb voting for Obamacare — twice?

    “The senate is still controlled by the Dems, right?”

    “The senate is controlled by millionaires.”

    When Reps screw up, they’re Republicans. When Dems screw up, it’s not Dems, it’s millionaires. Well, Mark Z, it’s good to know you have wi-fi there in Zuccotti Park.

  22. #22 |  David | 

    Every vote against Warner’s amendment was from a Republican, but the Dems screwed up?

  23. #23 |  Just some guy | 

    This seems a little excessive:

  24. #24 |  freedomfan | 

    I think Webb’s study probably would have been useful. However, this kind of legislation can easily do as much harm as good. Whereas the end product of the proposed research should be on getting to the truth and making recommendations for useful reforms, that focus can easily turn to making recommendations that are politically palatable, “relevant” to issues in the news, and “balanced”. For example, a recommendation about properly conducting eye-witness line-ups might be matched with a proposal for added powers for local police surveillance of citizens and information sharing with the feds to make it relevant to terrorism prevention.

    That being said, the Republicans come out of this looking pretty bad. I am glad whenever I see politicians paying some attention to Constitutional principles like federalism, but they are clearly cherry picking here. Unfortunately, Webb isn’t much of a federalist, else he could have sent down an amendment to end all federal subsidies to local police and prisons and end all military giveaways of equipment. That would easily save over $5 million and, when the same people complained, he could (and should) throw federalism in their faces. Hell, Webb could have offered to pay the cost of his study (make it “revenue neutral” in Congress-speak) just by lining out the budget for military transfers to his home district in VA. That would pay for the study and be a win for federalism.

  25. #25 |  Nancy Lebovitz | 

    Off-topic: It looks as though the person who started the disturbance at a Citibank which lead to arrests was an undercover cop.

  26. #26 |  Maggie McNeill | 

    #7: John, the quote you’re thinking of is probably “No man’s life, liberty, or property is safe while the legislature is in session.” – Gideon J. Tucker ( )

    You can take the girl out of the library, but you cant take the librarian out of the girl. ;-)

  27. #27 |  Kent | 

    So bye-bye, miss american pie……

  28. #28 |  derfel cadarn | 

    Justice is a wonderful thing so long as it does apply to politicians celebrities, police or any other member of the elite class. As long as Americans tolerate these affronts we will never know justice. JUSTICE= when the law applies equally to everybody.

  29. #29 |  Sarah P.H. | 

    This sounds pretty reasonable to me. Disappointing to see that it failed, and the excuses given by the GOP do sound like utter hypocrisy given their other stances.

    Also, does anyone else feel like the Senate is just broken with this business of needing 60 votes to do absolutely anything these days? It gives me a headache how a minority can block something with such little effort, and then people like Michael Chaney blithely assume any outcome must be the majority’s fault.

  30. #30 |  skunky | 

    congresscritters exposed as hypocrites. stop the presses.

  31. #31 |  skunky | 

    actually, Radley, your headline should read “GOP filibusters Jim Webb’s commission”

    in a normal world, this 60-vote stuff shouldn’t be part of the discussion. this is the US Senate, however, where normal rules don’t apply.

  32. #32 |  André | 

    Worth a look:,0,2860489,full.story

    “Chicago cop under scrutiny for 3 shootings, 2 of them fatal”.

  33. #33 |  jrb | 

    I think this post by Bill Anderson is relevant:

  34. #34 |  croaker | 

    Anyone else think it’s strange that the first full-on national “TEST” of EAS occurs on the day after Election day?

  35. #35 |  John Regan | 

    @ Maggie #26

    Silly me, thinking it was Lincoln.

  36. #36 |  pam | 

    @ jrb 33

    That pretty much says it all.

  37. #37 |  Maggie McNeill | 

    #35: You may have heard it misattributed to Lincoln; he’s one of those sources (like Benjamin Franklin, George Carlin and the Bible) who is constantly given credit for other people’s sayings. :-)

  38. #38 |  TC | 

    Sad as it is, it would be a waste of money.

    Look at how hard local DA’s fight DNA reversals!

    Tells a tale all by itself.

    What is needed is 50 of these council’s based within the states, and not an attorney in sight sans one for interpretation of the convoluted legal system they have created. Oh and he/she gets the same pay as the rest.

    Oh and make that 51 as the feds are so out of touch with the intent of the constitution it’s sick.

    Then they can all get together three times a year in Nashville and compare notes and freakin party!

  39. #39 |  Fake Federalism « Americans for Forfeiture Reform | 

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  41. #41 |  Jeff | 

    Why do we need a commission for this? Did someone abolish the Department of Justice? Surely they have people qualified to do studies like this, and most likely they have several such studies gathering dust on a shelf someplace. Do we really need another study to tell us that there are too many minor drug offenders in prison or that prisoners are not adequately protected from other prisoners?

    If Webb really wants to change things, he could start by asking the President, who is, after all, from his own party, to pardon everyone convicted of possession of marijuana. Right after that, he could order the Justice Department to start filing civil rights lawsuits against state prison systems that allow some prisoners to rape other prisoners.

  42. #42 |  Ron Paul Style Libertarianism and Reversing Mass Incarceration | Rortybomb | 

    […] refered to the GOP block as “an absolute scandal” and Randy Balko found the argument dubious.  Senator Rand Paul was among those who voted against […]