Friday, May 30, 2014

Conyers: Intelligence Community is Not Exempt from Congressional Oversight & Public Accountability

(WASHINGTON) – Today, the House of Representatives voted 345-59 to approve H.R. 4681, the “Intelligence Authorization for Fiscal Years 2014 and 2015.” After voting against the legislation, U.S. House Judiciary Committee Ranking Member John Conyers, Jr. (D-Mich) issued the following statement:

U.S. Representative
John Conyers, Jr.
“The Intelligence Authorization Act can and should be an annual vehicle for reform of the intelligence community. Last week, with the passage of the USA FREEDOM Act, Congress showed that both critics and defenders of the National Security Agency (NSA) can reach consensus and implement meaningful change to government surveillance programs. Regrettably, that spirit of compromise and reform did not prevail today,” said Conyers.

“Government surveillance is not the only area in need of improvement in the intelligence community. H.R. 4681, the ‘Intelligence Authorization Act,’ excludes even modest efforts to address cybersecurity, whistleblower protections, increased transparency, and drone warfare. Because the bill falls far short on each of these matters - and because the Members introducing these reforms were not provided even the courtesy of open debate - I did not support this bill.

“As my friend Judge Damon J. Keith once stated in a ruling against secret deportation hearings, ‘Democracies die behind closed doors.’ While I recognize the necessity of guarding some of the intelligence community’s clandestine activities, matters that impact the civil liberties and safety of all Americans cannot be conducted in a manner that shuts out Congress and leaves the public in the dark.”

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Ranking Member Conyers Statement at Overcriminalization Task Force Hearing

(WASHINGTON) – This morning, the U.S. House Judiciary Committee Overcriminalization Task Force held a hearing on penalties. During his opening remarks, Ranking Member John Conyers, Jr. (D-Mich.) delivered the following statement:

U.S. Representative
John Conyers
“The Over-Criminalization Task Force finally focuses today on what is the most critical failing of our Nation’s criminal justice system: the continuing prevalence of racism as evidenced by a federal charging and sentencing regime that clearly discriminates against people of color. Racism has permeated our nation’s history since the beginning. The Constitution referred to slaves as three-fifths of a man. The Civil War was fought to abolish slavery, and then Jim Crow raised his ugly head. We are fast approaching the sixtieth anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education, which struck down ‘separate but equal’ as the law of the land. And just last year, we celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of the March on Washington, and the passage of the Civil Rights Act.

“As a nation, we have come so far.  We like to now think that justice is colorblind; that the system is race neutral.  But, whether overt or subconscious, the vestiges of racism are still reflected in our federal criminal justice system, and it is all the more insidious for it.  That is because criminal justice is meted out by human beings with real human failings, including bias. No longer does Jim Crow and overt racism rule the day, but rather coded phrases such as ‘policing high crime areas’ and ‘stop and frisk’ policies are the norm.  And combined with mandatory minimums, stacking and enhancement penalties, and so-called ‘three strikes’ statutes, it is these concepts that disproportionately affect communities of color, drawing more and more people into an antagonistic and unforgiving criminal justice system.

“To provide some perspective regarding this problem, let’s begin with a few facts:In the last 40 years, the U.S. prison population has grown by 700%, and now accounts for 25% of the world’s prisoners.  The number of federal prisoners alone grew by nearly 50% from 2001 to 2010.

While only 4% of federal crimes carry mandatory minimum sentences, 34% of those in federal prison are serving mandatory sentences.

Moreover, the racial impact of the federal penalty system is wildly disproportionate:

Ø  1-in-9 black men between ages 20 and 34 are incarcerated.
Ø  1-in-3 black men, and 1-in-6 Latinos will spend some part of their lives in prison, compared to 1-in-23 white men.
Ø  Blacks represent 12% of total drug users in the country, but account for nearly 40% of drug related arrests.

“These numbers are far worse in segregated and impoverished communities. In addition to the devastating societal cost of mass incarceration, it also results in a massive economic cost.  The so-called ‘war on drugs’ has cost $1 trillion since its beginning, and the cost to run our federal prisons cost $6.9 billion in FY 2014.

“Before we identify solutions, we must recognize how we institutionalize and normalize racism today. First, I want to focus on how racism, unconscious or not, has a disproportionate impact on criminal penalties on minority communities.  Bias can begin with the decision of where and what offenses are investigated.  With enough time and officers in a certain location, it is only a matter of time before they find ‘reasonable suspicion’ to stop, detain, and arrest someone.

“At the prosecutorial phase, this bias can be magnified through decisions about what charges to bring, what plea deal to offer, and whether mandatory minimums and enhancements apply.  People from poor communities of color are more likely to receive harsher charges and mandatory penalties.

“The mandatory minimums and statutory enhancements so ingrained in the Code that were intended to target so-called ‘kingpins’ and violent criminals do no such thing.  Their use is now propagated against low-level, non-violent offenders who are disproportionately poor people of color. The threat of these staggering mandatory de facto life sentences coerces defendants into pleading guilty.  They impose a trial penalty on those who their constitutional right to a jury trial.

“Finally, at sentencing, people of color receive harsher sentences than would whites for the same conduct through mandatory minimums and other sentencing enhancements. Racism in American has, for the most part, ceased to be overt, but the prevalence of institutionalizing discrimination by writing it into law is just as present today as it was 100 years ago.

“The question that stands is: What can we, as a Congress, do about these pressing issues? Finding solutions to unconsciously institutionalized racism in the criminal justice system, and writ large on society, is not an easy task.  But there are steps we can take. We can begin by rolling back mandatory minimums and stacking and enhancement sentencing penalties that result in cruel and unusual punishment for what are too often low-level offenses. We can revest the federal judiciary with discretion in sentencing.  Not all judges are immune to bias, but in doing so we allow for the possibility of proportional sentencing, and the ability to overturn unduly harsh sentences due to abuse of discretion. We can recognize that Congress can and should defer to States in matters that the States can – and already do – investigate, prosecute and sentence, rather than engage in wasteful duplicative federal prosecutions allowing United States Attorneys to focus on uniquely federal concerns.

“Criminal justice is just one symptom of the underlying problem, and I hope to work with my colleagues in the future to hold a more in-depth forum to explore the issues of systemic racism and its impacts on society at large that will include a look at education, public services, voting rights, drug and mental health treatment, and employment. For today, I am hopeful that our witnesses today can shed light on the issues of the disparate racial impact of the criminal justice system, the economic and societal impact of these policies, and propose potential solutions and I look forward to their testimony.”

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Thursday, May 29, 2014

On Foster Youth Shadow Day, Conyers Shares His Workday with Wayne State Student Leader Jeseekia Vaughn

(WASHINGTON) – Today, Congressman John Conyers, Jr. (D-Mich.) along with other Members of the Congressional Caucus on Foster Youth participated in the third annual Congressional Foster Youth Shadow Day. The month of May has been designated “National Foster Care Month,” and the 2014 theme for the entire month is, “Building Blocks Toward Permanent Families.” Congressional Foster Youth Shadow Day provides an opportunity for foster youth to experience the day-to-day workings of the United States Congress. Additionally, the program offers opportunities for foster youth to network and explore future careers in Washington. Nearly 70 foster youth and alumni from cities across the country traveled to Washington, D.C. to participate.

During the day, Jeseekia Vaughn - who spent four years in Michigan’s state foster care system- shadowed Rep. Conyers while he attended a House Judiciary Committee Oversight Hearing on the Department of Homeland Security. Ms. Vaughn also accompanied Rep. Conyers to a congressional briefing and associated press conference with legendary Motown singers and other Members of Congress. Despite her past experience, Ms. Vaughn is now attending Wayne State University pursuing a degree in Mechanical Engineering.

Following the afternoon events, Rep. Conyers issued this statement:

“I am delighted to have had Jeseekia Vaughn here with me today to witness and experience the inner workings of Congress. As a Wayne State University student and advocate for foster youth, I hope that this experience will further inspire her to grow as the leader she is and continue to serve and mentor others,” said Conyers.

“Tragically, in the United States nearly 400,000 young people are looking for permanency with caring parents. Foster youth are better served when placed in permanent care such as adoption, legal guardianship, reunification with their birth family or placement with a fit and willing relative. Every child should have a loving and supportive family with the assurance of a bright future and I will continue to work on issues that encourage building permanency for America’s foster youth.”

Congressman John Conyers, Jr. (D-Mich.) and Jeseekia Vaughn on Congressional Foster Youth Shadow Day.

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Conyers Introduces “RESPECT Act” to Ensure Fairness for Music Legends & Motown Greats

(WASHINGTON) – Today, Ranking Member of the House Judiciary Committee John Conyers, Jr. (D-Mich.) joined with Congressman George Holding (R-N.C.) in introducing new legislation to ensure satellite and Internet radio services pay royalties they owe to legendary musicians and artists. Digital radio services today claim a legal loophole allows them to broadcast music recorded before February 15, 1972 without paying anything to the artists and labels that created it, shortchanging all music creators who were creating music before the early ‘70s.  This policy is also destructive to legacy music communities like Detroit where so much musical history was made and where many would-be recipients of pre-1972 royalties remain. Following the introduction of the legislation, Rep. Conyers issued the following statement:

“Digital radio stations that earn millions off Motown classics but fail to pay royalties to the artists who recorded them are withholding hard-earned profits from deserving musicians. Refusing retired artists royalties from digital radio stations is particularly unfair.  The RESPECT Act keeps faith with these living legends of American music – the famous greats and the less known musicians who supported them – and makes sure they get a fair shake.  At a minimum, that means getting fair pay from the digital radio stations who are marketing stations based solely of pre-72 music and profiting off the work of the men and women who inspired a musical revolution,” said Conyers.

Martha Reeves of Martha and the Vandellas and a former Detroit City Councilwoman from 2005-2009 supports the legislation: “From Hitsville to Nashville, some of the greatest music the world has ever known was recorded in the 1960s.  And yet it’s this golden age of music that digital radio says is worthless.  Taking the creative fruit of someone’s labors and paying them nothing for it is unethical, immoral, and simply un-American.  It simply has to stop, and I applaud Congressman Conyers for once again leading the fight on behalf of legacy artists in Detroit’s musical community and all around our country,” said Reeves. 

The “Respecting Senior Performers as Essential Cultural Treasures Act,” H.R. ____ , clarifies that any music service relying on the statutory license for digital transmissions must pay royalties for all the music they use – regardless of when it was recorded.

Congressman John Conyers, Jr. (D-Mich.) alongside fellow Detroiter Martha Reeves of Martha and the Vandellas.

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Ranking Member Conyers Statement at DHS Oversight Hearing

(WASHINGTON) – Today, the U.S. House Judiciary Committee held a full committee hearing entitled, “Oversight of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.” The sole witness at the hearing, appearing before the Judiciary Committee for the first time since his confirmation to the post, was Department of Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson. During his opening remarks, Ranking Member John Conyers, Jr. (D-Mich.) delivered the following statement:

U.S. Representative
John Conyers, Jr.
“I want to begin by welcoming Secretary Johnson to this Committee.  The Secretary has had a long and distinguished career, both in public service and the private sector. But what I like most is that he is a graduate of Morehouse College which has a special significance for myself and other Members of this body. Before his appointment to DHS, Secretary Johnson served as General Counsel of the Department of Defense, where he oversaw many critical reforms, including ending the discriminatory ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ policy. Given this background, I can think of no person better equipped to lead DHS and carry out the President’s directive to review our immigration policies to ensure that we are carrying them out ‘in the most humane way possible.’

“Yesterday, the President announced a delay to this review to provide my House colleagues the room they need to pass legislative reforms.  Whether through the Senate bill or several House bills, I am committed to work with them to achieve needed reforms of our system. We all agree that our immigration system is broken, and that only Congress can permanently fix it.  So we should get started on that process right away, before the window for reform closes. Every day that passes without a vote in the House is a day that thousands of families are torn apart; that businesses are deprived of critical skills; and that brilliant entrepreneurs and investors are forced to take their resources and talents elsewhere. Every day that passes is also a day in which we fail to jump-start our economy.  The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) has concluded that the House and Senate immigration reform bills - S. 744 and H.R. 15 - would decrease the budget deficit by $900 billion over 20 years.

“I stand committed to work with my colleagues for legislative reform.  But if my colleagues won’t act to fix a system we all agree is broken, then I fully support the President doing what he can under current law to improve that system.

“I agree with the President’s call to make our immigration system reflect American values. People who commit serious crimes and pose a danger to the public should be our highest priorities for removal.  Those with strong ties to this country - the spouses of citizens and permanent residents, the parents of citizens and Dreamers, and those who have worked productively in the U.S. for many years - should not be.

“We know the Administration has the authority to set enforcement priorities.  It also has the authority to set detailed guidelines to ensure that those priorities are carried out by deportation officers, trial attorneys, and other enforcement personnel. This authority has been specifically recognized by my Republican colleagues on this Committee, including in a letter sent by current Members to the Clinton Administration urging it to issue guidelines on prosecutorial discretion.

“So far we have heard nothing but excuses for not doing immigration reform.  The Senate bill has too many pages.  The House wants to take its time and do reform step-by-step.  We must secure the border before we can discuss anything else. These are all excuses in my book.

“The newest excuse for not working to reform the system is that Republicans cannot trust the President to enforce the law. Put aside the fact that this administration has set records with respect to enforcement spending, detentions, prosecutions, and removals.  The ‘can’t trust the President’ excuse strikes me as a very odd complaint from a legislative body. If this President is so lawless and Congress is so helpless to stop him, then what’s the point of passing any bill?  How many other issues of national importance do my colleagues think Congress should ignore until they have someone they prefer in the White House?

“It’s time to cut out the excuses and get to work doing the people’s business.  Americans agree that the system is broken and they strongly support comprehensive immigration reform. As the people’s House, it is our duty to stop passing the buck and get to work.”

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Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Conyers: Michigan Minimum Wage Hike to $9.25 a Step Towards Worker Dignity

Congress Must Still Act to Guarantee a Living Wage

(WASHINGTON) – Yesterday, following overwhelming support in the Michigan House (76-34) and Senate (24-12), Governor Rick Snyder (R-Mich.) signed into law a gradual increase in the minimum wage. Over the next four years, the minimum wage in Michigan will increase from its current hourly level of $7.40 to $9.25. In addition, the law indexes the minimum wage to inflation - up to a maximum increase of 3.5% annually - beginning in 2019. After the bill signing, Congressman John Conyers, Jr. (D-Mich.) issued the following statement:

U.S. Representative
John Conyers, Jr.
“Michigan’s minimum wage increase is a step in the right direction. At our state’s current minimum wage of $7.40 per hour, parents working full-time lack the income needed to cover food, clothing, and shelter—let alone childcare, healthcare, and transportation,” said Conyers.

“While the increase to $9.25 over four years represents genuine progress, this level is still lower than the inflation-adjusted minimum wage back in 1968. For this reason, I have co-sponsored H.R. 1010 to raise the federal minimum wage to $10.10 this year.

“Raising the minimum wage is both good ethics and good economics. When hardworking Americans gain more purchasing power, they go out and buy necessities including meals and school supplies. This improves their lives, while boosting consumer demand and job-creation across the economy. As a matter of worker dignity - and a means of tackling America’s growing income inequality - Michigan’s minimum wage hike is welcome, but more work remains to be done.”

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Conyers Honors the Life and Legacy of Dr. Maya Angelou

(WASHINGTON) – Today, revered poet and civil rights activist Dr. Maya Angelou passed away in Winston-Salem, at the age of 86. After learning of her passing, Congressman John Conyers, Jr. (D-Mich.) released the following statement honoring Dr. Angelou’s life and legacy:

U.S. Representative
John Conyers, Jr.
“I was deeply saddened to learn that Dr. Maya Angelou passed away earlier today. Her contribution to our country - and, in particular, her ability to help us remember joy in moments of national turmoil - cannot be overstated. Her work inspired my own, and I take heart in knowing that both her art and her advocacy will continue to enrich the lives of so many,” said Conyers.

“A student of life, Dr. Angelou taught herself skills that led to her career as a revered poet, distinguished professor, and loving mother. Her autobiography ‘I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings’ has brought hope and wisdom to countless individuals as they persevere through life’s many challenges. Dr. Angelou was a fierce champion of equality and fairness throughout her advocacy, and was a passionate supporter of the Civil Rights Movement. Undoubtedly, Dr. Angelou has cemented her place in America’s history and will be forever remembered through her work and teachings.”

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Reps. Holding, Conyers, & Music Legends to Host Press Conference on Introduction of the “RESPECT Act”


(WASHINGTON) – Congressman George Holding (R-N.C.) and House Judiciary Committee Ranking Member John Conyers (D-Mich.) will hold a press conference on THURSDAY, MAY 29, 2014 at NOON to introduce bipartisan legislation, the “Respecting Senior Performers as Essential Cultural Treasures” or the “RESPECT” Act. The RESPECT Act ensures older artists receive fair pay from the digital radio services that use their work.

Songs and other recordings recorded after February 15, 1972 are protected by federal law, while songs and other recordings recorded before that date are protected by state law.  Some successful digital music services refuse to pay royalties for “pre-72” music, however, arguing that the federal license they use doesn’t require payment for songs and recordings protected by state law.  However, they also refuse to pay royalties under state law – claiming that state laws don’t cover digital services at all. The RESPECT Act addresses this issue by requiring digital music services that use the federal compulsory license to pay royalties for the pre-72 music that they play.

Press Conference on Introduction of the “RESPECT Act”
Ø  Congressman George Holding (R-N.C.)
Ø  Congressman John Conyers, Jr. (D-Mich.)

Ø  SoundExchange President & CEO Michael Huppe

Congressman Holding and Ranking Member Conyers will be joined by several legendary artists, including:

Ø  Martha Reeves, of Martha & the Vandellas
Ø  Roger McGuinn, of The Byrds
Ø  Sam Moore, of Sam & Dave
Ø  Richie Furay, of Buffalo Springfield and Poco
Ø  Dickey Betts, of The Allman Brothers Band
Ø  Al Jardine, of The Beach Boys
Ø  Mark Farner, of Grand Funk Railroad
Ø  Gene Chandler"The Duke of Earl"
Ø  Karla Redding, daughter of Otis Redding

Thursday, May 29, 2014 at Noon
2237 Rayburn House Office Building

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Friday, May 23, 2014

Conyers, Goodlatte, Nadler, Sensenbrenner, Scott, and Forbes Applaud House Passage of the USA FREEDOM Act

Bill protects Americans’ privacy while preserving our ability to protect American national security

(WASHINGTON) – The House of Representatives today approved by a vote of 302-121 the USA Freedom Act (H.R. 3361), a bipartisan bill authored by Crime, Terrorism, Homeland Security, and Investigations Subcommittee Chairman Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wisc.) that ends bulk collection of data by the government and reforms our nation’s intelligence-gathering programs operated under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA).

For nearly a year, the House Judiciary Committee, which has primary jurisdiction over intelligence-gathering programs operated under FISA, has studied the scope of these programs in detail. The Committee has held three hearings on this issue and has worked with civil liberties advocates, the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, House leaders, and the Obama Administration to reach the bipartisan solution approved by the House today.  House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.), Ranking Member John Conyers, Jr. (D-Mich.), Crime Subcommittee Chairman Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wisc.), Crime Subcommittee Ranking Member Bobby Scott (D-Va.), Congressman Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), and Congressman Randy Forbes (R-Va.) – key lawmakers who brought this bill to fruition – praised today’s strong vote in the House of Representatives in the joint statement below.

Today’s strong, bipartisan vote by the House of Representatives on the USA Freedom Act will help protect our cherished individual liberties as the federal government carries out its duty to keep our nation safe from foreign enemies. The USA Freedom Act safeguards Americans’ civil liberties by ending domestic bulk collection once and for all and increases the oversight and transparency of these intelligence-gathering programs so that we can begin to rebuild trust with the American people.  

“With today’s vote, the House approved the first significant rollback of government surveillance since the passage of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act in 1978. While this is not a perfect bill, the USA FREEDOM Act is an important step in the right direction. We thank our staff, House leaders, and President Obama and his Administration for working tirelessly with us to reach this bipartisan solution that protects both national security and Americans’ privacy. We urge the Senate to move expeditiously on the USA Freedom Act so that our nation’s intelligence-gathering programs are operated in a manner that honors our country’s legacy of both providing for the common defense and securing the blessings of liberty.”


Below are key provisions of H.R. 3361:

Prohibits Bulk Collection of Data: The bill protects Americans’ privacy by ending the bulk collection of Americans’ business records under Section 215 of the Patriot Act, such as telephone and electronic communications records, among many others. The bill also prohibits bulk collection under other national security authorities.

New Process for Obtaining Call Records: The USA FREEDOM Act makes clear that the government cannot indiscriminately acquire Americans’ records and creates a new process for the collection of call detail records. Specifically, the bill requires that these call detail records can only be collected on an ongoing case-by-case basis after approval by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. The FISC is authorized to allow up to two “hops.”

Protects Americans’ Privacy: The bill codifies current minimization procedures, requiring the government to minimize the acquisition and prohibit the retention and dissemination of information about Americans. Additionally, it prohibits the government from using unlawfully obtained information about Americans acquired outside the scope of court-approved procedures.

Ensures Robust Oversight of Intelligence-Gathering Programs: The bill increases oversight of our intelligence-gathering programs by providing for judicial review of minimization procedures for the production of business records.

Increases Transparency of Intelligence-Gathering Programs: The bill creates a panel of legal experts to help ensure the FISA court adequately considers privacy concerns and Constitutional rights of Americans and also requires the Director of National Intelligence and the Attorney General to conduct a declassification review of each decision, order, or opinion of the FISA court that includes a significant construction or interpretation of the law. The bill requires the government to disclose the number of requests made for call detail records and requires the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts to publicly report annually the number of FISA orders issued, modified, or denied by the FISC.

Allows American Tech Companies to Disclose FISA Orders: Last year’s national security leaks have also had a commercial and financial impact on American technology companies that have provided these records. They’ve experienced backlash from both American and foreign consumers and they’ve lost their competitive edge in the global marketplace. In January of this year, the Justice Department entered into a settlement with several companies to permit new ways to report data concerning requests for customer information under FISA. The USA FREEDOM Act builds upon this settlement, allowing tech companies to inform their American and foreign customers by publicly reporting national security requests.

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Ranking Member Conyers Floor Statement on the “USA FREEDOM Act”

(WASHINGTON) – This morning, the U.S. House of Representatives debated H.R. 3361, the “USA FREEDOM Act.” As the debate began, Ranking Member John Conyers, Jr. (D-Mich.) delivered the following statement on the House Floor:

U.S. Representative
John Conyers, Jr.
“The version of the bill pending before us today is not a perfect vehicle.  There is more we can do — and must do — to ensure ‘[t]he right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and affects, against unreasonable searches and seizures.’ But let me be clear: the compromise bill before us today is a significant improvement over the status quo.  And it is a good bill.

“With this legislation we stand poised to end domestic bulk collection across the board — in Section 215 of the PATRIOT Act, in the pen register authority, and in the National Security Letter statutes — by requiring the use of a ‘specific selection term’ before the government may obtain information or tangible things. This legislation will create a panel of experts from which the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court can draw expertise in questions involving privacy, civil liberties, and technology. It will also require the court to disclose every significant opinion it issues — because in this country there should be no such thing as secret law. And we have accomplished all these things while providing President Obama with his requested authority for the limited, prospective collection of call detail records.

“Any bill we might have offered on this subject would have been imperfect. But we have been careful to include critical safeguards in this legislation. With the additional reporting, declassification, and transparency requirements laid out in this bill, we believe the government would be hard pressed to attempt to expand its surveillance authorities beyond the narrow intent of this legislation. As the Administration stated yesterday in a formal statement of policy, the USA FREEDOM Act ‘prohibits bulk collection.’ This is our intent.  And we will hold the current, and future, administrations to this intent.

“In closing, I want to thank Chairman Goodlatte, Mr. Sensenbrenner, Mr. Nadler, and Mr. Scott for their tireless leadership on this issue. I also want to thank Chairman Rogers and Ranking Member Ruppersperger for their willingness to work with us to reach this point. The House is poised to approve the first significant rollback of any aspect of government surveillance since the passage of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act in 1978. We must seize this opportunity. I urge my colleagues to support H.R. 3361, and I reserve the balance of my time.”

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Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Michigan Radio: Rep. Conyers requests moratorium on foreclosures in Detroit

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Criminal Injustice

By John Conyers, Jr.
U.S. Representative
John Conyers, Jr.
For decades, Congress has implemented policies that distort America's criminal justice system and tip the scales of justice in favor of punishment over rehabilitation. As a matter of civil rights and basic justice, our criminal justice system must change. Fortunately, the Obama Administration recognizes the unacceptable status quo, and recently announced an initiative to spur change. This new proposal will expedite the clemency process for thousands of non-violent offenders serving lengthy sentences behind bars -- sentences they would not have received had they been sentenced today due to changes in the law.
Regrettably, this initiative has come under fire, with the vitriol taking the form of executive fiat and the worthiness of the clemency candidates. But this criticism is based on rhetoric, not reality.
Article II, Section 2, of the Constitution provides that the President "shall have power to grant reprieves and pardons for offenses against the United States." The Constitution bestows pardon power without restriction or equivocation. For critics to suggest otherwise betrays both a fundamental misreading of the Constitution and a misremembered history of prior Presidents using that power.
As a textual matter, the pardon power is one of the broadest grants of authority in the Constitution. The only two limits that the Constitution imposes on that plenary power are its applicability to offenses against the United States (i.e., not civil or state cases) and the prohibition on its use in an impeachment process.
Borrowing from English law, our founding fathers understood that the executive served an important role to counterbalance the possible tyranny of the legislature and the courts. They understood that in the laudable quest for justice, injustice could result from rush to judgment, underdeveloped factual records, and emotion glorified over reason. They understood that pardons and clemency were necessary adjuncts to mitigate harsh penalties.
In The Federalist No. 74, Alexander Hamilton explained it succinctly when he wrote, "[H]umanity and good policy conspire to dictate, that the benign prerogative of pardoning should be as little as possible fettered or embarrassed. The criminal code of every country partakes so much of necessary severity, that without an easy access to exceptions in favor of unfortunate guilt, justice would wear a countenance too sanguinary and cruel." Hamilton argued that the executive's use of the pardon power could be essential in the restoration of peace in the union during times of domestic crisis.
Building on the text and history of the pardon power -- and paraphrasing Hamilton -- the question presented to us now is this: Has our federal criminal code, in its gluttony for mandatory minimums, partaken so much of that sanguine, severe and cruel injustice that humanity and good policy now dictate access to an exception in favor of those unfortunate enough to be sentenced under them?
The Obama Administration has answered with a resounding "yes," the same answer many of us would give. The nonviolent, low-level inmates with records of good behavior during the 10 years or more that they have already served for sentences that would not be imposed today due to changes in the law are precisely the individuals for whom this relief was intended. These potential clemency recipients have experienced severe, cruel, and unjust mandatory sentences.
For purposes of comparison, Lewis Libby, former chief of staff to Vice President Cheney, was convicted of perjury and obstruction in connection with the investigation into who had revealed the identity of a covert CIA operative. For these actions, Mr. Libby received a two-and-a-half-year sentence, and did not serve a day in prison because his sentence was commuted merely two months afterward.
Who then is more deserving of a second chance?
To myself -- and an increasing number of reform-minded lawmakers -- there is no question that contributing members of our society with a minor transgression are worthy of a second chance under President Obama's clemency initiative. Relief to them gives form to our Founding Father's prescience that the executive clemency power and the independence of the judiciary are necessary bulwarks against the severity and tyranny that the majority could exact against a powerless minority.
While clemency attempts to fix our broken system of mandatory sentencing solely on the back end, clemency is not a guarantee in any circumstance, certainly not when it depends on the discretion of the President. Clemency provides relief to a few lucky individuals plucked from the stack of petitions, but does not repair the inherently broken system that put thousands of individuals behind bars in the first place. Clemency is therefore not a viable or intended permanent solution.
But Congressional action is. By writing laws with logical, proportional and effective penalties, Congress can put a stop to existing and continuing injustice.
To achieve this, Congress first needs to stop passing laws that contain mandatory sentencing provisions. Mandatory sentences do not work: they discriminate racially, treat low-level offenders identically to kingpins for whom these laws were intended; and they undermine any chance of rehabilitation. Prosecutors too often wield enhancements to pressure defendants to plead rather than exercise their constitutional right to go to trial -- or to punish those that do. These mandatory weapons rob people of their freedom and families of their loved ones.
Second, Congress needs to eliminate, or greatly reduce, existing mandatory minimums and grant retroactive relief to those sentenced before current changes to sentencing policies took effect. Further, Congress needs to return discretion to judges, empowering them to impose sentences that truly fit the crime and the person before them, rather than being conscripted to impose mandatory minimums they may oppose.
Finally, Congress has a moral obligation to achieve a 1:1 ratio in sentencing for crack cocaine cases compared to powder cocaine cases. At the height of the so-called "War on Drugs," Congress passed laws that created 100:1 crack cocaine to powder cocaine disparity at the time of sentencing. Not only was that ratio not based on sound scientific or empirical evidence, but it perpetrated existing prejudices in how defendants of color were targeted, charged, and sentenced. Four years ago, during my tenure as Chairman, the U.S. House Judiciary Committee worked to reduce this arbitrary and discriminatory disparity to 18:1 by passing the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 into law. To restore a semblance of justice in our drug laws, Congress must achieve a 1:1 parity.
Clemency is a first step, but Congress has duty -- regardless of political affiliation -- to reintroduce a sense of justice to a dated, disastrous and discriminatory regime.

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