By Editorial Board,
IT IS a Washington truism that nothing gets done in an election year, particularly now that partisanship is as severe as ever in recent memory. But with all attention on a boisterous presidential race, members of Congress have managed to do a few things right lately.
A bipartisan group of senators announced a major criminal-justice-reform bill on April 28, bringing Congress a crucial step closer to repairing federal sentencing and prison policy. Critics point out that the bill is modest, watered-down from previous versions that would have eased penalties for more types of federal prisoners. For the senators behind the bill, however, these compromises were necessary to bring in votes for the policy, which would still do good.
Focusing on nonviolent offenders, the legislation would reduce penalties for low-level drug crimes and give judges more leeway in sentencing. Minor players in major drug rings, for example, would be eligible for lesser sentences. The bill would also allow some federal prisoners to earn early release by completing prison programs designed to curb recidivism. For better or for worse, the bill would not empty the nation’s prisons, and it would not eliminate the appalling treatment of some inmates in this country, in large part because the federal government does not control state prisons, which lock up many more people. But the bill would deal with some of the excesses of the tough-on-crime attitude of previous decades.
There’s been progress on other relatively unheralded reforms, too. The House overwhelmingly passed the Defend Trade Secrets Act, a measure that recognizes the threat of trade secret theft in a knowledge economy. The bill would give private people and companies the right to sue others in federal court for taking and misusing confidential, economically valuable information. States already allow these sorts of suits under their own laws, but the bill would provide another venue for parties seeking relief, with consistent, standardized national rules and resources to sort out complex disputes.
The House also passed the Email Privacy Act, a long-neglected but crucial update of electronic privacy laws. Because of a quirk about how telecommunications laws were written in the 1980s, the government does not need to get a warrant to demand email or data stored on the cloud, as long as it is more than 90 days old. Decades ago, anything left on someone else’s server that long was considered abandoned. Now, practically everyone has all sorts of personal details sitting on remote servers for indefinite periods of time. This reform is very long overdue.
We are not about to break open the champagne and declare Washington fixed, particularly because lawmakers could fail to pass some of the bills that have advanced lately. The Senate still needs to find time to approve its criminal-justice bill, for example. Still, in a season of deep political rancor and dysfunction, these modest accomplishments are worth a cheer.