U.S. justices voice support for criminal justice reform

Reuters News
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Posted: Mar 23, 2015 5:38 PM

By Lawrence Hurley

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Two members of the U.S. Supreme Court on Monday voiced support for efforts in Congress to reform the American criminal justice system, criticizing the reliance on mandatory minimum sentences in recent decades and the penal system in general.

Testifying before a U.S. House of Representatives panel about the court's annual budget, conservative Justice Anthony Kennedy and liberal Justice Stephen Breyer both spoke of problems with the system.

"This idea of total incarceration just isn't working and it's not humane," Kennedy said, referring to the high rate of imprisonment in the United States.

"Solitary confinement literally drives men mad," Kennedy added.

Addressing the U.S. penal system, Kennedy said, "In many respects I think it's broken."

Breyer said the move in recent decades toward mandatory minimum sentences - a policy that takes away discretion from judges and sometimes imposes long sentences for low-level, non-violent drug offenders - was "a terrible idea."

In February, a bipartisan group of senators introduced legislation that would abolish mandatory minimum sentences for certain non-violent drug offenders. President Barack Obama's administration supports the measure.

The proposed legislation aims to reduce spending on federal prisons, which consume a third of the Justice Department's annual budget.

Separately, Representative Ander Crenshaw, a Florida Republican, asked Kennedy whether he had concerns about "increasingly politically charged issues" that the Supreme Court decides.

The court is weighing a high-profile challenge to tax subsidies crucial to the implementation of the 2010 healthcare law, often known as Obamacare, among other issues.

Kennedy said one problem is that when the justices take cases involving how to interpret laws passed by Congress, they frequently suggest ways for Congress to rewrite the statute to fix the problem - but Congress rarely takes such action.

"Some people say that should affect the way we interpret the statutes. That seems to me a wrong proposition," Kennedy said.

The justices "have to assume that we have three fully functioning branches of the government," he added, referring to Congress as well as the executive and judicial branches.

The Obamacare case concerns how the 2010 Affordable Care Act should be interpreted, but Kennedy did not specifically mention the case in his remarks. Kennedy is viewed as the most likely of the five conservatives on the nine-member court to side with the Obama administration in that case.

(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley)