WASHINGTON — The conference rooms of a Marriott hotel in Washington turned into the headquarters of an unlikely mutual appreciation society on Thursday as progressives and conservatives met to discuss what has become a rare, and surprising, bipartisan issue: criminal justice reform.
Former Speaker Newt Gingrich, a Republican who once made tough-on-crime policies a plank of his 1994 Contract with America, complimented Sen. Cory Booker, the Democrat from New Jersey, for spearheading efforts in Congress to overhaul the statutes that flourished during that era. Booker, in turn, praised the work of conservatives on the issue, among them the Koch brothers, who are best known for pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into electing Republican candidates for office, but have now turned their attention to criminal justice advocacy.
Less than a decade ago, it would have been unimaginable to see groups as varied as Koch industries and the American Civil Liberties Union working together on criminal justice reform. This is perhaps the only forum in U.S. politics where civil rights activist Van Jones, one of the organizers of the summit, and Piper Kerman, author of the memoir "Orange is the New Black" on which the Netflix series is based, might share a common agenda with Matt Kibbe, the director of the tea-party aligned libertarian advocacy group, Freedomworks.
“Fifteen years ago, criminal justice reform was a pretty lonely endeavor,” said Vanita Gupta, the top civil rights attorney at the Department of Justice. “There were few people, I would say, from the right or the left that were taking on the issue and championing the cause. And when those of us from the right and the left started working together several years ago, we got sideways looks at us, suspicion, and skepticism. Our day has come.”
Still, reaching consensus on the need to re-examine the policies contributing to the United States’ unprecedented prison population, the largest in the world, may actually be easier, according to activists and elected officials at the summit, than getting reform passed through Washington’s partisan gridlock.
Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Va., said the politics of the issue are still fraught. “There’s no downside to voting stupid on crime,” Scott notes. “Have you ever heard anybody get in trouble by voting for mandatory minimums?”
So far the available solutions are piecemeal: a number of bills addressing various components of the criminal justice system have been introduced in Capitol Hill. A broad coalition of lawmakers, led by Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah and Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Idaho has come together to sponsor the Smarter Sentencing Act of 2015, which would cut mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug offenders in half. Booker and Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky. teamed up to introduce the REDEEM Act, which would allow nonviolent offenders to petition a judge to have their criminal records sealed. Rep. Doug Collins, R-Ga. and Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn. are working on a bill that would strengthen resources for mentally ill offenders, directing them to treatment facilities instead of jail cells. And Senators John Cornyn, R-Tex. and Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I. have sponsored a bill setting up a system that allows federal prisoners to shave time off their sentences by attending programs intended to reduce recidivism.
But none of those bills have yet made it out of committee. “There’s a lot of good legislation and a lot of good energy but I’m telling you there’s tremendous work to do to get those bills through committee and onto the floor,” Booker said. “My dream is that … we as a nation decide, before we even get into this presidential election, let’s make this one of the top issues in America.”
Other promising reform efforts have been felled by partisan politics and mistrust. Comprehensive immigration legislation in Congress also attracted the bipartisan support of lawmakers and stakeholders, but it eventually met its doom in the GOP-controlled House.
And some liberal commentators have questioned the motives of those on the other side of the political aisle when it comes to criminal justice reform—particularly the involvement of the Koch brothers.
“It’s not a PR push,” Mark Holden, general counsel and senior vice president of Koch Industries said in an interview. “We are committed because it’s part of our core principles and core values, of individual rights and liberty and everything that we try to do from our business, the products we make, the philanthropic activity, the public policy activity is designed to make sure that people can improve their lives, particularly the disadvantaged.”
Gingrich and Jones said they believed there was greater consensus around criminal justice reform than any other issue currently on the public policy radar, floating the possibility that there could be a comprehensive bill addressing criminal justice issues in this Congress.
“There’s a relatively small pro-prison faction in America,” Gingrich said. “There’s no massive opposition to rethinking how we incarcerate people, and I think there’s a growing awareness among almost all Americans that there’s something profoundly wrong.”
“This is the bipartisan breakthrough that everyone’s been waiting for for six years,” Jones added. “No one would’ve predicted it would have been on this topic, that I think violates the principles of both parties so obviously that there’s reason to come together.”