Huffington Post: Seizing the Moment to Reform a Criminal Justice System that Hurts Families and Communities
On July 24, 2004, I stood in an overly air-conditioned courtroom in Gainesville, Georgia, and watched as my then-husband pled out to six years in prison for a non-violent crime. As the bailiff handcuffed him and began to lead him out of the room, I looked down at my two-month-old daughter and felt fear wash over me. Without having gone to college, I'd been unable to find a job making more than the minimum wage, and I knew that my income alone would not be enough to pay for our household and provide food for my daughter and me.
As the days passed, I began to feel a growing sense of rage. Sentencing a person to six years in prison would not only rip apart his family, but he would lose his job, his home, and any support he had within the community. How could there not be a more logical approach to addressing crime?
My husband was taken out of the courtroom that day and sent to a diagnostic facility, where we would be unable to have any contact with him for the first six weeks of his incarceration. Not knowing anything about prisons besides what I'd seen on television, I imagined the worst. I lay in bed terrified at night, kept awake with worry, wondering if I would get a call telling me he'd been hurt or possibly worse.
One of the most difficult aspects of being a family member of a prisoner is the ambiguity. Due to overcrowding in the prison system and constraints on space, inmates are moved around frequently and without warning. You have no idea whether or not your loved one will get the letters you send, what time they will be able to call you, or even if they will be there when you show up for a visit.
The experience of having a family member in prison was not only emotionally debilitating, but financially, as well. Phone calls were $17. We could barely afford the cost of gas to drive hundreds of miles to a county facility far away from our home. I watched every penny I spent so I could add funds to his commissary to buy basic provisions like pens, paper and shampoo, which in my mind, should have been provided by the prison itself. It's almost as though the system was set up to destroy families and disintegrate any support networks an inmate may have.
Determined to find solutions to the injustice I'd experienced, I decided to pursue my education and become a criminal-defense attorney. I took my first job out of law school representing death-row inmates in California. I continued to learn how the prison system's poor design actually encouraged crime by dehumanizing inmates and forcing them to focus all their energy on surviving its harsh and dangerous conditions, rather than providing meaningful opportunities to learn new skills or prepare for successful reintegration back into society. Frustrated with the system, I co-founded #cut50 and set out to smartly and safely cut the prison population in half in the next 10 years.
At #cut50, we believe there is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to reform our broken criminal-justice system and institute smarter, cheaper, and more efficient ways of addressing crime. We also believe that incarceration impacts all of us and it will take a wide range of voices -- especially those directly impacted by the system -- to create a new narrative of justice and redemption. Most importantly, we see each of the more than two million people currently locked behind bars in this country as individuals who have the potential to contribute to their communities and succeed outside the walls of prison and jail.
And we are not the only ones. Last month, more than 600 people -- including 10 members of Congress from both sides of the aisle, three GOP governors, the Attorney General, the Secretary of Labor, and even the President, who appeared via video -- took the day to reflect on our justice system and band together to call for reform at the Bipartisan Summit on Criminal Justice Reform. Their powerful voices echoed the same message throughout the day -- putting more than two million Americans behind bars has made our streets more dangerous, wasted our precious resources, and created an even bigger racial divide in this country. It is time to change not only how we, as a nation, address crime, but how we view and treat those who have committed crimes.
Over the past three weeks, we have highlighted What's Working in Criminal Justice Reform. These innovative programs and policies, coupled with the political energy and determination we saw at the Bipartisan Summit, will lay the foundation for real transformative reforms.
Let us work together to ensure that individuals are successfully diverted from entering the prison system to begin with and help restore justice to communities, empower people with new opportunities, and save precious tax dollars to make neighborhoods across the country stronger. We are at a unique moment in time. Let's seize the opportunity and tear down walls of injustice to build new hope for millions of people around the country.
With one in 100 Americans currently incarcerated at costs upwards of $80 billion per year, political leaders from across the political spectrum united for reform. From ALEC and Koch Industries to ACLU and Drug Policy Alliance, the summit served as the launchpad for unlikely alliances in 2015.
The summit - hosted by Van Jones, Newt Gingrich, Donna Brazile and Pat Nolan - brought together more than 90 speakers to share insights and innovative solutions to our country’s mass incarceration problem.
Among the speakers were 3 GOP Governors and 10 members of Congress - both Republicans and Democrats - who participated in person or by video.
Featured speakers included: Attorney General Eric Holder, David Simon (The Wire creator), Donna Brazile, Labor Secretary Tom Perez, Georgia Governor Nathan Deal, John Forté (Fugees), Piper Kerman (Orange is the New Black author) and Sen. Cory Booker.
President Obama, himself, even made a cameo — via video.
In a pre-taped interview between he and David Simon, the President talked about the national shift in conversation about prison reform and the real-life inspiration behind "Omar Little,” Obama’s favorite character from the hit show. Watch the full video here.
Did you miss the summit?
- WATCH the full summit here.
- Click to see our behind the scenes photo gallery here.
- WATCH a behind the scenes video of Van and Newt recapping the #bipartisansummit.
- Check out our media coverage.
- Check out our storify here.
- Visit the official Bipartisan Summit website.
WE’RE JUST GETTING STARTED. This is just one of many upcoming bold, bipartisan and high-impact convenings to promote one idea: American can safely and smartly cut our prison population in half over the next 10 years.
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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."