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There's bipartisan backing, but that doesn't mean a bill will pass
Van Jones likes to call his Republican buddies “brother.” As in Brother Mark (Holden, the general counsel at Koch Industries), or Brother Matt (Kibbe, the CEO of the conservative group FreedomWorks). Jones, a Democratic activist and former Obama adviser, beamed as he strolled the halls of a cavernous Washington hotel Thursday, clasping shoulders and squeezing hands with one unlikely conservative ally after the next. And Jones wasn’t the only one basking in the warm vibes of bipartisanship.
If you mistakenly wandered into the Bipartisan Summit on Criminal Justice Reform, you might have thought you had fallen into an alternate universe. Scores of liberal and conservative activists, policy wonks and lawmakers gathered for an all-day conference that seemed to defy all the old saws about Washington gridlock. Former GOP House Speaker Newt Gingrich lauded Democratic Senator Cory Booker, who volleyed back praise for his Republican partners. Even Attorney General Eric Holder drew warm applause in a ballroom dotted with conservatives.
But as unusual as that may be in Washington, it’s becoming a routine sight when it comes to criminal justice reform. In recent months, a growing bipartisan alliance has formed around the need to change a prison system that critics say is broken and bloated. Thursday’s crowd was the clearest sign yet of the coalition’s breadth. “When you have an idea whose time has come,” said Jones, one of the hosts of the summit, “it winds up being an unstoppable force.”
Maybe. But it’s never easy in Washington to channel a cause into actual change. A show of force is not a strategy. Despite general agreement about the problems riddling the justice system, it remains unclear how a collection of interest groups with divergent ideologies can marshal their money and organizing muscle to move bills through a fractious Congress—all before the 2016 presidential election puts the legislative process on pause.
Washington (CNN) An overhaul of U.S. criminal justice laws looks increasingly possible, and the 2016 presidential campaign just might give the effort a shot in the arm, says Sen. Cory Booker, D-New Jersey.
The issue was the focus of Thursday's Bipartisan Summit for Criminal Justice Reform. The event was sponsored by groups that make odd bedfellows -- from the left-leaning American Civil Liberties Union to the conservative Koch Industries.
Booker and former GOP House Speaker Newt Gingrich were among the headliners for the day-long summit, intended to build momentum behind a host of reforms that so far haven't gotten much traction in Congress.
Also there: Big crime-drama names like David Simon, who wrote HBO's "The Wire," and Piper Kerman, the inspiration behind Netflix' "Orange is the New Black."
The White House released a video of Simon and President Barack Obama discussing the criminal justice system and "The Wire's" depiction of the issues contributing to high rates of incarceration. In it, Obama emphasized the need to "humanize" both criminals and police, to create a better dialogue on criminal justice reform.
"In the same way you've got to be able to humanize those involved in the drug trade, we have to remind ourselves that the police — they've got a scary, tough, difficult job and if the rest of society is saying, 'Just go deal with this, and we don't want to hear about it ... just keep it out of our sight lines, and it's not our problem,' we're betraying them as well," he said.
But he expressed confidence the current interest in criminal justice reform would at least produce a "more productive way of thinking" about the problems.
Booker, a New Jersey Democrat, said at the summit that there were still challenges in enacting real reforms.
"There is a lot of good legislation and a lot of good energy, but I'm telling you there is tremendous work to do to get those bills out of committee and onto the floor," Booker said.
Though void of any likely 2016 aspirants, Booker said reform supporters such as Sens. Ted Cruz and Rand Paul will help raise the issue's profile.
Booker said each of them have backed key measures that are pieces of the broader push to overhaul a system that he said leaves people facing far-too-long "mandatory minimum" sentences for non-violent offenses, and then imposes more burdens upon their re-entry to society.
"The reality is what has made this issue have so much more strength in force has really been the courage of Republican leaders around the country to step up and step out," Booker said, crediting libertarian super-donors the Koch brothers, anti-tax leader Grover Norquist as well as other fiscal and religious conservatives.
Booker and Paul last year introduced the REDEEM Act, which would divert child offenders from the criminal justice system, automatically seal or expunge their records in some cases, and prohibit child offenders from being kept in solitary confinement.
"There is a growing consensus across the political spectrum that our criminal justice system is in need of reform," said House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R, Virginia. "The issue of over-criminalization is an issue of liberty. We must work together to improve our criminal justice system so that it works fairly and efficiently and reduces crime across the United States."
The Obama administration is “all in” on criminal justice reform, Labor Secretary Tom Perez said Thursday.
"We’re all in on this, we’re all in at the Department of Justice, we’re all in at the White House. We’re all in throughout this administration,” he said at a conference on the issue. "This is the real deal.”The secretary had just finished a speech on putting ex-cons back to work, and getting people into the workforce instead of prison in the first place.
“A good job is the most effective recidivism reduction strategy I can think of,” he said.
He made the remarks at the Bipartisan Summit on Criminal Justice Reform in Washington. His speech came after a day of panels and speeches from notable advocates for criminal justice reform — a broad issue area that ranges from changing prison conditions to altering the mandatory sentences for drug crimes.
There was a significant administration presence at the event. President Obama appeared in a video with “Wire” creator David Simon, while Attorney General Eric Holder appeared earlier in the day.
“There is an increasing realization on the left, but also on the right, politically, that what we’re doing is counterproductive,” Obama said in the video. “We’re all responsible for at least finding a solution to this.
Holder was equally emphatic.
"We must keep fighting for the high ideals that have animated our nation since its inception. And we must keep standing up and speaking out — no matter the challenges we face — to eradicate victimization and end injustice in all its forms," he said.
"As you know, my time in this administration will soon come to an end. But I intend to remain engaged in this work — because, for me, it has never been only a professional obligation; it is a personal calling, and a moral imperative," he added.
The comments — and the administration’s visibility at the event — signal the growing interest in pursuing criminal justice reform on both sides of the aisle.
Several lawmakers appeared at the conference in the morning, including Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) and Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii). House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) appeared in a video shown at the event.
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.