As a result of the apparent decision by congressional Republicans to oppose almost everything Democrats are for, Maine Senator Susan Collins — who claims to be above partisanship — helped derail Virginia Democratic Senator Jim Webb's bill to establish a bipartisan National Criminal Justice Commission. Maine's Olympia Snowe and three other Republicans joined unanimous Senate Democrats to support it.
The commission would make recommendations to overhaul a system widely seen as unfair, unsuccessful, and unsustainable — especially, a prison system that at enormous expense locks up people at a rate of five times the rest the world, including many mentally ill drug addicts who reoffend soon after release.
The bill was thought to have broad Senate support. In 2010 the House had approved it by voice vote. The present chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, Lamar Smith, a Texas Republican, was a co-sponsor.
But in a Senate that Webb said had become "toxic" the October 20 vote was 57 for and 43 against. To get past a threatened Republican filibuster the bill needed 60 votes.
The Senate defeat provoked bewildered howls across the political spectrum. A blogger for the conservative National Review Online called the Republican move "insane." Maine Democratic chairman Ben Grant said Collins's vote was "a travesty."
Amy Fettig of the American Civil Liberties Union called the vote "yet another example of partisan obstructionism and scorched-earth politics where questions of leadership and governance are always trumped by the quest for raw power." Jennifer Seltzer Stitt of Families Against Mandatory Minimums said "vicious" partisanship was involved.
Collins's office said she had concerns about details of the measure, which would establish "yet another federal commission with a sweeping mandate" while having only 18 months to complete work, in contrast to recent federal studies on prison rape and criminal forensics, which took four to five years to produce a report.
Collins also was concerned about the feds "investigating state criminal justice systems" because this "raises issues of federalism and states' rights." Collins had, however, voted for the bills authorizing the studies she cited of prison rape and criminal forensics, which also investigated state criminal justice systems.
The National Sheriffs' Association, International Association of Chiefs of Police, and dozens of other groups supported the bill. Collins's office said the National District Attorneys Association and the National Association of Police Organizations had concerns about it.
Seltzer Stitt said the vote was a set-back but "not the end" for the bill.