by Bob Barr
In recent weeks, state governments across the country have begun prioritizing the issue of criminal justice reform, and at the federal level it is high time for Congress to return to this vital issue.
It has now been four years since Congress, on an overwhelmingly bipartisan basis, passed the First Step Act — the most significant criminal justice reform in decades. While the legislation arguably did more than any other to get low-risk, nonviolent offenders back on their feet, even President Donald Trump acknowledged that the federal government still has more work to do in this matter.
The 50 states have similarly acknowledged as much. That is why states such as New York and Pennsylvania have made passing the Clean Slate Act a priority. This bill will expunge the records of certain low-risk, nonviolent offenders who have already completed their sentences, allowing them to better qualify for work, education, and housing opportunities.
While it is commendable to see so many states take action to reform their own criminal justice codes, as a former U.S. Attorney I know all too well that the federal government needs to do the same with the federal criminal code.
The Kyle Rittenhouse case provided the American people a glimpse into why reform on the state and federal levels needs to become a top priority.
Although much of the country, including most legal analysts, recognized that Rittenhouse acted in self-defense, the politicized prosecutors in Wisconsin still invested heavily to see Rittenhouse put in jail.
Rittenhouse was lucky. Most defendants do not have the resources to fight prosecutorial abuse as aggressively as did Rittenhouse’s legal team. In most cases, especially at the federal level, prosecutors routinely pressure defendants with decades in prison if they do not accept offered plea deals.
While such plea agreements may allow those charged to avoid prison, they still are left with criminal records that stay with them for the remainder of their lives; denying them jobs, housing, even education. These records drastically limit their economic and rehabilitative opportunities, thereby increasing their chances of recidivism.
For the more than 70 million Americans that have committed nonviolent criminal offenses — from the struggling single mom who shoplifted from the grocery store to the young adult arrested for possession of marijuana — their long-term prospects are dire. It is not, and should not be a question of allowing these low-risk, nonviolent offenders to escape punishment, but rather whether they really need a criminal record for the rest of their lives because of a low-risk, nonviolent mistake made years before.
Congress apparently does not think so, which is why a consortium of members, including Republican Iowa Sen. Joni Ernst and Republican Pennsylvania Rep. Guy Reschenthaler have introduced the Clean Slate Act at the federal level.
Akin to the many similar Clean Slate bills introduced in state legislatures, the federal version will expunge the records of certain low-risk, nonviolent offenders that have already served their time, allowing them to provide for their families, contribute to society and move on with their lives once again. Not every nonviolent offender will qualify, nor should they. Still, this legislation will allow millions of Americans who have paid for a past mistake to finally move on.
A bipartisan coalition of center-right and center-left groups, including Americans for Tax Reform, the Brennan Center for Justice, the Center for American Progress and the Faith and Freedom Coalition, have all endorsed this bill, and it is difficult to find anyone in vocal opposition to it.
When will congressional leaders, on either side of the aisle, call it up for a vote?
With 91% of Americans agreeing that the criminal justice system needs fixing, there is no reason for this issue to linger any longer. Pressure for these reforms needs to be pushed to the very top of the congressional food chain.
A weigh-in to leadership from some of Congress’ most notable criminal justice reform advocates — from John Cornyn, Chuck Grassley, Mike Lee and Rand Paul on the Republican side to Cory Booker and Dick Durbin on the Democratic side — could provide the necessary horsepower to expedite consideration of this important legislation, and help this and future generations of Americans get back on the right track.
It is a move long overdue.
Bob Barr represented Georgia’s Seventh District in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1995 to 2003. He served as the United States Attorney in Atlanta from 1986 to 1990 and was an official with the CIA in the 1970s. He now practices law in Atlanta, Georgia and serves as head of Liberty Guard.