Several members of Congress are proposing a National Criminal Justice Commission. This Commission would study all levels of the nation’s criminal justice system (federal, State, local, and tribal) and then make recommendations to Congress and the President and publish their findings for the general public.

In more detail, how this would work (if passed into law) is: the experts appointed to the National Criminal Justice Commission will take eighteen months to hold hearings and to talk to leaders and those with experience with law enforcement and criminal justice. At the end of this eighteen-month process, they will publish a report and present their recommendations “for changes in Federal oversight, policies, practices, and laws designed to prevent, deter, and reduce crime and violence, reduce recidivism, improve cost-effectiveness, and ensure the interests of justice at every step of the criminal justice system.”

The meetings of the Commission would, in general, be public. The bill specifies that the Commission is to have access to whatever information it needs from law enforcement and various agencies.

Who is behind this proposal?

Senator Gary Peters (D-MI) proposed S.1119, titled the “National Criminal Justice Commission Act of 2015,” and Senators Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and John Cornyn (R-TX) immediately signed up as co-sponsors. Since then, the bill has gathered three more Republican co-sponsors and eight more Democratic co-sponsors. An identical bill, H.R.2330, was proposed in the House, and (as of May 28) it is backed by four Democrats and one Republican. (To see the latest list of backers, click on the links and then find “Cosponsors.”)

Who would be on the Commission?

If this bill is enacted, the Commission would be made up of fourteen members who have nationally recognized expertise in the criminal justice system. It would have two co-chairmen that are appointed by the leaders of opposite parties (Republican and Democrat). The remaining twelve members would be appointed by Republican and Democratic leaders of the U.S. House and U.S. Senate, of which four are supposed to be State and local leaders. Thus both parties would have an equal say in who is on the Commission.

The political leaders have 45 days after the bill’s enactment to choose people to be on the Commission. The Commission is to start meeting about 60 days after the bill’s enactment.

How likely is this to make a difference?

The bill’s sponsors are hopeful because there is precedent for such a commission. In 1965, a similar commission studied our law enforcement and justice system and presented 200 recommendations to Congress. This did affect our society; for instance, our 911 system was set up because of that report.

However, fifty years later, we should keep in mind that perhaps nothing will change because we have learned to expect governmental inaction. The odds of this bill passing Congress are very low, although it has until the end of 2016 to pass and its bipartisan support is a promising sign. If it does pass, although we can hope that its members are appointed and it is funded (out of Department of Justice appropriations, according to the bill in its current form) in a timely manner, we must wonder whether various law enforcement agencies will be transparent in dealing with the Commission. Finally, what the Commission says will be only recommendations; its report will not be binding.

Nevertheless, we hope that if this proposal does become law, a comprehensive study of our criminal justice system would make more clear what changes really would be beneficial. At this time, many are calling for our approaches to crime to be driven by evidence of what approaches really work, so more evidence would be helpful. For example, in 2007 the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines were amended for some quantities of crack to alleviate the 100:1 disparity in crack and powder cocaine sentencing. In 2010, the Fair Sentencing Act decreased that disparity to an 18:1 disparity, and in 2011 the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines followed suit. Then, in 2014, sentencing levels for all drug crimes were slightly reduced. These changes were made as the Government studied the issue and decided that decreases in sentence length would likely not increase the crime rate. Further study would, we hope, show everyone whether shorter sentences for drug crimes really lead to an increase in crime rates (as some fear) or not.


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