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Bipartisan Congressional Task Force Established to Examine Over-Criminalization in Federal Law

Friday, 17 May 2013 11:31 By Staff, Drug Policy Alliance | Press Release
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Recommendations Could Lead to Federal Marijuana Policy and Drug Sentencing Reform, Alleviate Prison Overcrowding

Washintgon, DC—Today, ten House Judiciary Committee members joined together to pass a resolution to form the Over-Criminalization Task Force of 2013 to examine and make recommendations for paring down the federal criminal code, which has expanded rapidly in recent years. The Task Force will conduct hearings and investigations on over-criminalization issues within the Committee on the Judiciary's jurisdiction, and has the opportunity to issue reports to the Committee on its findings and provide policy reform recommendations. This is the first review of the expansive federal criminal code since a Department of Justice review in the 1980s.

The Task Force could choose to examine federal marijuana policy because only Congress can remove federal criminal penalties for marijuana – even for individuals who are in compliance with state laws (such as the 18 medical marijuana states plus the District of Columbia and the two states, Colorado and Washington, that are legally regulating marijuana). More broadly, the Task Force will likely also explore the draconian drug sentencing policies of the last three decades that have contributed to severe overcrowding in the Federal Bureau of Prisons.

"This Task Force is a step in the right direction and could propose recommendations to significantly alleviate mass incarceration and racial disparities in the federal system," said Jasmine L. Tyler, deputy director of national affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance. Feeling the pinch of bloated prison budgets over the last several years, states have become better equipped to deal with individual drug cases, without relying on incarceration and by providing opportunities for individuals to rebuild their lives while saving taxpayer dollars.

The Task Force membership includes Mr. Sensenbrenner (R-WI), Mr. Scott (D-VA), Mr. Bachus (R-AL), Mr. Gohmert (R-TX), Mr. Labrador (R-ID), Mr. Holding (R-NC), Mr. Nadler (D-NY), Mr. Cohen (D-TN), Ms. Bass (D-CA), and Mr. Jeffries (D-NY). The Task Force will also explore the issue of mens rea, or criminal intent, which could significantly impact the number of people being sent to federal prison – in large part because evidentiary standards have been eroded as the use of conspiracy laws has risen over the last three decades. Conspiracy laws were created in the late 1980s to apply the mandatory sentences that were intended for high-level traffickers to an individual involved in the trafficking conspiracy regardless of how small their role. In some cases, individuals who are not even a part of a trafficking enterprise are implicated under conspiracy laws and forced to serve the sentences reserved for high-level traffickers.

"The establishment of this Task Force is long overdue for the drug policy reform movement," said Tyler. "It is past time for Congress to re-examine marijuana laws, conspiracy laws, mandatory minimum sentencing, and the appropriate role and use of the federal government's resources."

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