This was a vote on an amendment by Sen. Jim Webb (D-VA) that would have created a commission to study and improve the U.S. criminal justice system (including factors such as incarceration rates, sentencing, etc.). This amendment was offered to legislation that would provide annual funding in fiscal year 2012 for Agriculture, Transportation, and Commerce department programs.
Webb urged support for his amendment: “Our criminal justice system is broken in many areas. We have some strong work in local areas, with people trying to help fix these problems, but we need a national commission in order to take a look at the criminal justice system from point of apprehension all the way to reentry into society of people who have been incarcerated. We have not had this overarching national look since 1965.
What are the two boundaries that affected my approach to this? I would like to lay them out very quickly. The first is that we have entered a period from the 1980s forward where we have tended to overincarcerate for a lot of nonviolent crimes….Beginning in the 1980s, our incarceration system skyrocketed to the point where there are now 2.38 million people in prison in the United States. Seven million people are involved in the criminal justice system on one level or another of supervision from our authorities.
The second is that Americans don't feel any safer for all of this incarceration and for the approach that it has taken. Survey after survey from the last decade indicates that the average American community feels more threatened this year than it did last year. Two-thirds of Americans believe crime is more prevalent today than it was a year ago….It [Webb’s amendment] is balanced philosophically and politically. I would ask my colleagues when the last time was that we had law enforcement lining up with people who were generally believed to be on the other side philosophically--the ACLU, NAACP, et cetera--all coming together and saying the same thing. This needs a national commission. This needs to be fixed.”
Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX) opposed Webb’s amendment: “I rise to speak against the Webb amendment to the bill….It is an authorization of a commission--it is called the National Criminal Justice Commission--which is purporting to look at the entire criminal justice system--federal, state, and local. This is an overreach of gigantic proportions. It is certainly within the purview of Congress to do a national commission to look at the federal criminal justice system, but to go into state and local governments and purport to examine the criminal justice systems of our states and local governments is far beyond the reach of Congress, and it is certainly not a priority we should meet in appropriations bills when we are already in a deficit and debt crisis in this country….The budgetary decisions of our state and local governments and the criminal justice systems should be done at that level. If there is a massive problem, there will be lawsuits about it. There would be a lawsuit against the Texas prison system. There was one, and it changed the way the Texas prison systems were even built and how much space there was in the cells. If there is a problem, there is a remedy. But we don't need a national commission to come in and tell the State and local governments they have a problem and rearrange the budgetary priorities of those States and local governments.”
The vote on this amendment was 57-43. While a majority of senators voted ”yea,” the Senate had agreed by unanimous consent to set a 60-vote threshold for passage of the amendment. Since the amendment did not receive a 60-vote majority, the measure was rejected. All 53 Democrats and 4 Republicans voted “yea.” 43 Republicans voted “nay.” As a result, the Senate rejected an amendment that would have created a commission to study and improve the U.S. criminal justice system.