Congress must take the next steps on federal criminal justice reforms

After months of work, Congress finally took the “first step” on criminal justice reform. The bill recently signed into law by President TrumpDonald John TrumpThe Hill's Campaign Report: Democratic field begins to shrink ahead of critical stretch To ward off recession, Trump should keep his mouth and smartphone shut Trump: 'Who is our bigger enemy,' Fed chief or Chinese leader? MORE, known as the First Step Act, offers a smart path toward reducing crime, reforming our prison system, and saving taxpayer dollars. The First Step Act is a landmark piece of legislation that will implement critical reforms based on evidence in the notoriously inefficient federal justice system.

These reforms, which have been tested in deep red states such as Texas, Georgia, Florida, South Carolina, have been proven to reduce crime through lowering rates of recidivism, which means prisoners reoffending upon release. By reducing recidivism, the First Step Act reduces crime. Approximately 95 percent of those held within the federal prison system will eventually be released to return to their communities. The reforms in the First Step Act help ensure that upon release, former prisoners are prepared to reenter society, rather than to commit additional crimes.


The First Step Act will achieve lower rates of recidivism by allowing qualifying prisoners who have a low or minimal risk of recidivism to use time credits earned through the successful completion of tailored recidivism reduction programming. Prisoners who participate in this programming, such as learning a trade or earning a degree, are more likely to find gainful employment and lead a stable life upon their release.

Thanks to the broad support from both sides of the aisle, as well as from law enforcement agencies and faith based groups, Congress has the opportunity and the backing to pass further criminal justice reform in the future. As President Trump said at the bill signing, “This is the first step, but there is going to be a second and a third, and possibly a fourth.”

There is still much to be done. Congress needs to keep the ball rolling and pass legislation that will continue to focus the criminal justice system on rehabilitation and reentry into society. These bills should also steer the system away from abusive practices such as civil asset forfeiture and rampant overcriminalization. In the last Congress, several bipartisan bills were introduced that would have achieved many of these policy goals.

Fortunately, reauthorization of the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act was signed into law the same day as the First Step Act. This legislation ensures that we do not recklessly overexpose juveniles to the criminal justice system, which often contributes to recidivism. The Second Chance Reauthorization Act and the Mercy Act also became law. However, most of the other bills went untouched. Legislation like the Renew Act, the Clean Slate Act, and the Fair Chance Act would enhance the reforms in the First Step Act by breaking down barriers to reentry, including the simple existence of a criminal record, that still prevent rehabilitated offenders from reentry into society as productive citizens.

Unfortunately, many of the Republican champions of these meaningful reentry measures, including Trey GowdyHarold (Trey) Watson GowdyRising star Ratcliffe faces battle to become Trump's intel chief Cummings announces expansion of Oversight panel's White House personal email probe, citing stonewalling Pelosi says it's up to GOP to address sexual assault allegation against Trump MORE, Darrell IssaDarrell Edward IssaThe Hill's Morning Report — US strikes approved against Iran pulled back Darrell Issa eyes return to Congress Trump's 2020 campaign strategy is to be above the law MORE, and Rod Blum, are not be returning to Congress this year. Therefore, it is critical that new members of Congress take up these torches immediately. Furthermore, abusive practices in the criminal justice system are still prevalent, most notably the presence of civil asset forfeiture and overcriminalization. Civil asset forfeiture is used by law enforcement to seize private property suspected of being connected to criminal activity, under the assumption of guilty until proven innocent, which is a gross inversion of due process.

To this effect, supported legislation has been introduced to increase the evidentiary standard required to seize property. These bills include the Due Process Act, introduced by Representative Jim SensenbrennerFrank (Jim) James SensenbrennerLive coverage: Mueller testifies before Congress Tech executives to take hot seat at antitrust hearing Big tech braces for antitrust crackdown MORE, as well as the Fair Act, introduced by Representative Rep. Tim WalbergTimothy (Tim) Lee WalbergPro-trade group targets Democratic leadership in push for new NAFTA The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Pass USMCA Coalition - Restrictive state abortion laws ignite fiery 2020 debate On The Money: Mnuchin signals officials won't release Trump tax returns | Trump to hold off on auto tariffs | WH nears deal with Mexico, Canada on metal tariffs | GOP fears trade war fallout for farmers | Warren, regulator spar over Wells Fargo MORE and Senator Rand PaulRandal (Rand) Howard PaulGraham promises ObamaCare repeal if Trump, Republicans win in 2020 Conservatives buck Trump over worries of 'socialist' drug pricing Rand Paul to 'limit' August activities due to health MORE. The Due Process Act has more than 20 bipartisan cosponsors in the House, while the Fair Act has more than 50 bipartisan cosponsors in the House and at least seven cosponsors in the Senate.

Similarly problematic for due process is the “mens rea” requirement, or the lack of a guilty mind, for an overwhelming number of federal crimes. There are somewhere between 4,500 and 5,000 federal statutes carrying criminal penalties and over 400,000 federal regulations that may be enforced criminally. Although the issue of “mens rea” is divisive between parties, it is imperative that all sides recognize there must be a default mens rea standard in order to obtain a conviction lest overcriminalization continue to run rampant in our system. Legislation like the Mens Rea Reform Act would accomplish this by implementing such a standard.

At the outset of the 116th Congress, returning and new members alike should turn their attention to these important next steps. There is still much to be done to bring the full gamut of successful state criminal justice reforms to the federal level. Fortunately, the stage has already been set, and significant support for further reforms is certainly there.

Adam Brandon is the president of FreedomWorks.