Lawmakers call for criminal justice reform after Brown, Garner cases

 

Lawmakers called for broad criminal justice reform at a hearing Tuesday in response to recent killings of black men by white police officers.

Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) said that though it would be prudent for the investigations of those shootings to be completed, protests over the shootings were driven by larger inequality in the prison system.

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“But I find myself a senator at this time when we have this ironic reality that there are more African-Americans now in prison, under criminal supervision — prison, jail, probation, parole — than all the slaves in 1850,” he said during the Senate Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights.

“And the elected leadership that’s showing this most clearly is not coming from the federal level, it’s actually coming from the states,” he added, citing Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal (R) who has signed a series of criminal justice reform bills.

“And remarkably, refreshingly, it’s coming from red states. Red state governors with their legislatures are passing legislation that this body should be passing.”

Booker testified alongside Rep. Luis Gutiérrez (D-Ill.) and Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), both of whom blasted law enforcement policies that allow racial profiling to target minorities.

“Racial profiling, condoned officially and unofficially by some in law enforcement, forces blacks and Latinos to contend with the criminal justice system more frequently and in a completely different way than many others in society,” Gutiérrez said.

The hearing, at times, turned personal.

Gutiérrez recounted being racially profiled while entering the Capitol in 1996.

“I think of when my daughter was stopped because she was driving in “too nice a car” with her friends in her own neighborhood or when I was stopped coming into the Capitol complex earlier in my career because I didn’t “look like a Congressman,” he said.

Booker described congressional pages and Capitol workers “who do the dignified important work, yet menial work” pulling him aside and saying, "Please, do something about this."

The three lawmakers spoke at a time when criminal justice is being debated around the country — and as elements of reform are being embraced on both sides of the aisle.

But if Congress tackles criminal justice and sentencing reform next term, it is unclear what form legislation would take.

Conservative Sens. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and Rand Paul (R-Ky.) support the Smarter Sentencing Act. The bill, sponsored by Sens. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and Mike Lee (R-Utah), would change the federal mandatory minimum sentences for some drug crimes that have led to people of color being incarcerated at disproportionate rates.

But that proposal is not supported by Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), who will chair the Judiciary Committee when Republicans take the Senate majority in January.

Grassley has supported a package of prison reforms sponsored by Sens. John Cornyn (R-Texas) and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) that also aims to reduce the prison population.

The hearing takes place as protests erupt across the country. In two of those cases, the officers in question were not indicted by grand juries. An investigation is ongoing in the third death, of Cleveland 12-year-old Tamir Rice.

President Obama has called for his own set of reforms in the aftermath of the incidents. He has proposed giving law enforcement funds for 50,000 additional body cameras to capture the interactions between citizens and police.

The Justice Department also announced new rules on Monday designed to curb racial profiling.