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.
(CNN) In Washington, we are seeing the re-emergence this year of a phenomenon that many Americans were afraid had gone extinct: real live no-joke bipartisanship.
Heavyweights from both parties are attending the March 26 Bipartisan Summit on Criminal Justice Reform. The event is co-produced by Gingrich Productions (on the right) and by my project, #cut50 -- an initiative that aims to safely halve the number of people behind bars within 10 years.
Attorney General Eric Holder will be speaking. So will Newt Gingrich, the Republican former House speaker. Sen. Cory Booker, D-New Jersey, will be there. So will Democratic strategist and CNN commentator Donna Brazile, a co-host of the summit.
Republican power players like former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, Ohio Gov. John Kasich and Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, will address the gathering by video.
So will President Obama.
Progressives like myself will rub shoulders with representatives from Koch Industries.
Everyone keeps asking me, "How is this possible?"
I have five words for you: "Liberty and justice for all."
The ever-expanding incarceration industry has begun to violate some of the deepest and most sacred principles of BOTH major political parties.
Therefore, conservatives, libertarians and liberals have their own objective interests in reform -- and their own values-based incentives to make real changes.
For example, the right takes very seriously the concept of "liberty." Conservatives and libertarians want to defend the rights of every individual to pursue his or her dreams. They favor limited government. They hate massive, failed, bloated government bureaucracies that suck up more and more money and get more and more power, no matter how badly they perform.
In America today, we have 5% of the world's population -- but we have nearly 25% of the world's incarcerated people. Nearly 1 in 100 American adults is behind bars. One out of every four people locked up anywhere in the world is caged in America's prisons and jails.
And most people come out more damaged, more hopeless and less able to thrive than when they went in. (So much for "corrections"!)
That's the opposite of limited government -- and liberty.
On the other hand, progressives like me care passionately about the "justice for all" part -- including racial justice and social justice. We are incensed by a system that locks up the poor and racial minorities in numbers that are massive -- and massively disproportionate. We oppose a system that forever tars people as "felons," deemed permanently unfit for employment or the right to vote, possibly because of one mistake, early in life.
When any system violates the principles of both "liberty" AND "justice," Americans of all stripes should stand together to change it.
That is exactly what is starting to happen. This year, we are seeing the birth of an honest-to-goodness "Liberty and Justice for All" coalition.
Still struggling to believe me? I was on "Anderson Cooper 360" on Monday night to discuss the movement for criminal justice reform.
Here is a quote:
"A lot of kids I grew up with, grammar school, middle school, high school, were in prison. They were the poor kids and they had drug addictions. They had drug problems, they didn't have any money, they got caught, and they got caught in the poverty cycle, and they are at the bottom of society and they can't get out of it. ... People with drug problems, people who have mental illnesses, they probably shouldn't be in the criminal justice system. And people who make mistakes, let's not write them off forever, let's give them a chance to reintegrate and reenter society."
There is just one catch: I'm not the one who said that. That is a direct quote from Mark Holden, senior vice president of Koch Industries.
On practically every other issue, the Koch brothers and I are still fierce opponents. I doubt if we will ever agree on tax policy, campaign finance reform, environmental rules or the Keystone Pipeline, to name a few. But on criminal justice reform, it's different.
Mark speaks eloquently about the way the criminal justice system violates the Bill of Rights and criminalizes behaviors that should not result in prison terms.
And he is not alone, on the right.
Fiscal conservatives decry the money wasted on a system that is too expensive and produces poor results. That's one reason that red-state governors, like Georgia's Nathan Deal, have acted boldly. Leaders with roots on the religious right, including summit co-host Pat Nolan, insist on the Christian value of redemption and second chances for those behind bars.
Our values may not always be identical, but they can find common expression in fixing this broken prison system. Progressives and conservatives don't have to trust each other -- or even like each other -- to vote together on this issue.
Usually, "bipartisanship" is just another word for cheap, political gamesmanship. It is too often invoked by one side, simply to gain advantage and to cloak a more narrow set of interests.
But on criminal justice reform, something different is happening. Criminal justice reform is the one place where many Republicans, Democrats and Libertarians actually agree -- and are willing to work together to get something done.
Over the last 30 years, both parties helped lead us down the path to mass incarceration. It will take both political parties to reverse course.
Perhaps the March 26 Bipartisan Summit will represent the first major bend in the road back toward sanity.
Speaking at South by Southwest, the veteran activist said that opening the doors to the tech industry for people of color is the first step.
Fresh off the 50th anniversary of the “Bloody Sunday” march over the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., the Rev. Jesse Jackson brought his message of going “beyond the bridge” to the South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas.
Jackson said that while the 1965 march was a major moment in the struggle to get blacks the right to vote, the new challenge will be opening up access to technology and Silicon Valley.
“Voting has its place, but the fastest-growing industry, I believe, is high tech, so we need to get in there,” he said. “We must make access to technology and this new machinery a crusade for everybody, not just a campaign for the few.”
Jackson has been instrumental in convincing major technology companies to release their diversity figures, which have shown that on average, just 2 percent of their workforce is black.
When #YesWeCode founder Van Jones, who moderated the conversation with Jackson, asked how many in the SXSW audience knew that the veteran activist has been pivotal in making this happen, very few people raised their hands.
How Jackson went about getting companies to cooperate illustrated a new way of taking protest from the pavement to the boardroom, he explained.
“The magic is going from a protester to a shareholder,” said Jackson, whose organization the Rainbow PUSH Coalition bought shares in tech companies to push for change from the inside.
“Ours was a social-justice agenda to change the conditions,” he said. “The argument that we made was not so much of a negative one but of a value-added argument.”
And Jackson hasn’t just been giving speeches; he’s getting action, Jones said. Just last week, Apple became the third tech company this year to announce a donation of funds to help increase the number of women and people of color in the tech industry. Apple is committing $50 million to the cause.
In January, Intel announced a gift of $300 million, and in February Google donated $775,000 to Code2040, a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping women and minorities find tech jobs.
Jackson pointed out that blacks can be just innovative as whites and have been demonstrating this since the beginning of time.
“We can turn garbage into energy,” Jackson said. “Everyone has a place if you make room for them.”
He also wants to start an “underground railroad,” from Oakland to San Francisco, with the idea being to provide more inner-city black youths access to Silicon Valley.
Jackson said, however, that members of the black community have to do their part in forging their destiny in the tech world. “I don’t think we are doing as [well] right now as we should because people tend to be what they see,” Jackson said. “They don’t see it; they don’t want to be it.”
Technology must be taught in school, talked about at home and popularized through music, Jackson declared.
“It’s not just about being locked out; it’s about charging to open the door,” Jackson said, adding that it’s about not only opening the door but also being able to go through when it does open. 1 million-worker shortfall (pdf) in the tech industry. (Some, however, dispute that number.)
“If you start telling African-American and Latino and Native American grandmamas alone that their grandkids can make $70,000 a year if they work hard and study well for just six months, you’re not going to have a problem in terms of people wanting to be part of this,” Jones said.
He and Jackson are also pushing for big tech companies to start recruiting from HBCUs, not just from the usual feeder schools like the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Stanford.
Students from historically black colleges are just as qualified and should not be overlooked, Jackson said, adding, “Whenever the playing field is equal, we can make it.”
Julie Walker is a New York-based freelance journalist. Follow her on Twitter.
We are thrilled to announce our partnership with Dev Bootcamp to launch the Dev Bootcamp and #YesWeCode Diversity Scholarship.
In an effort to encourage more underrepresented racial and gender minorities to enter careers in the tech sector, Dev Bootcamp has pledged to offer $425,000 in tuition scholarships over the next year to reduce the cost of tuition from $13,000 to $1,000.
This scholarship initiative supports both our missions to provide more people the skills they need to access high-paying jobs as well as to help companies benefit from a more diverse talent pool.
Check out the FAQ below:
How do the scholarship programs work?
Dev Bootcamp runs on a rolling cohort schedule, where new students begin our program every 3-weeks. Through this scholarship program, we will offer one student a spot in our New York City program and one student a spot in our Chicago program in each of the next 17 cohorts.
The application deadline for this scholarship is April 15.
Who Can Qualify?
- You must be 18 or over, and:
- You must identify as a woman (or other gender minority)
- And/or you must identify as Black, Chicano/Latino, Pacific Islander or Native American
How do I apply?
- Go to apply.devbootcamp.com to start your application and select "I qualify for the Dev Bootcamp + YesWeCode Scholarship Fund"
- Once your Dev Bootcamp application is submitted, you’ll be directed to complete the "Dev Bootcamp + YesWeCode Scholarship Application"
- Complete the interview prep instructions and schedule your Dev Bootcamp interview! (note: Applicants will be notified of their admissions status within 24 hours of completing their interview. You must be accepted into the program to qualify for the scholarship)
- Scholarship recipients will be notified on May 1st
To learn more about our efforts to promote greater diversity within our organization and the tech community at large, please visit our Diversity page.
On March 27th and 28th, hope will turn into action in Detroit, Michigan, as msnbc, #YesWeCode, and Ford host a special Growing Hope event at the Ford STEAM Lab. Here, 100 students from five Detroit-area middle will participate in a two-day “hackathon”. They’ll have a chance to learn computer programming skills that help pave the way towards high-tech education and careers.
The tech products the students create at the hackathon will be judged by a high-profile panel, and over $30,000 in scholarships will be awarded. The panel will include Stephen Henderson, Pulitzer Prize-winning Editorial Page Editor of the Detroit Free Press and co-host of Detroit Today on WDET, and Van Jones, #YesWeCode founder and environmental and civil rights advocate.
msnbc will present a special live broadcast from the event, hosted by Joy Reid, on March 27th at 2pm ET. Join us as we explore the remarkable work of young people who represent the hope and ingenuity that is essential to the continued revival of Detroit.
It’s been a historic week for #YesWeCode!
On Monday, The White House officially announced its TechHire Initiative, which includes:
#YesWeCode’s commitment to raising and delivering $10 million in scholarships for 2,000 underserved minorities across the nation, to attend coding bootcamps over the next ten years.
#YesWeCode's plan to launch a national job-training pilot in Oakland, California in 2015. Through this pilot, we will design a 9-month, industry-driven model to successfully prepare students from low-opportunity backgrounds for careers as software engineers.
#YesWeCode’s partnership with celebrities, athletes, tech and political leaders, and other influencers, to support the mission of #YesWeCode to find, finance, and encourage 100,000 non-traditional students to become top-level coders.
TechHire is a bold multi-sector initiative of the White House. It aims to empower Americans with the skills they need through universities, community colleges, high-quality online courses — as well as nontraditional approaches like “coding boot camps”, to secure well-paying jobs. Read the full White House Fact Sheet here.
Click below to watch an excerpt from President Obama’s TechHire announcement:
"At a time when we all lead digital lives, anybody who has the drive and the will to get into this field should have a way to do so, a pathway to do so." - President Obama
Spread the good news! Please share this tweet:
- For @WhiteHouseOSTP #TechHire initiative, #YesWeCode will target diverse communities for careers in tech! http://bit.ly/1GCrdj3
BUSINESSES IN THE US are on a hiring spree, but jobs that require tech skills sit open—500,000 in all.
It’s that gap that the Obama administration hopes to close with its new $100 million TechHire Initiative, announced by the president today. At its core, TechHire aims to convince local governments, businesses, and individuals that a four-year degree is no longer the only way to gain valuable tech skills.
“It turns out it doesn’t matter where you learned code, it just matters how good you are at writing code,” Obama said. “If you can do the job, you should get the job.”
That’s an idea that training startups like Codecademy and General Assembly, as well as online course companies like Coursera, have been pushing for years. Now, the White House is urging businesses and local governments to embrace that concept, as well.
In Silicon Valley, the idea of non-traditional training as a viable alternative to college is a familiar concept. In the rest of corporate America, not so much. And yet, non-tech industries like financial services and healthcare, are where two-thirds of the country’s tech jobs exist. So, to make this idea more palatable to non-tech employers, TechHire is working to develop some standards for alternative education.
“When companies have job openings they cannot fill, it costs them money,” he said, speaking to thousands of local leaders at the National League of Cities’ annual conference. “If these jobs go unfilled, it’s a missed opportunity for the workers, but also your city, your country, your state, and our nation.”
Setting the Standards
To create these standards, the Obama administration is working with the business advisory firm CEB to develop a guide for employers on how to recruit tech workers from less traditional places. It’s also working with a company called Knack to make a standard tech aptitude test free to employers and training organizations. The goal is to make it easy for employers to assess the quality of a job candidate, who doesn’t have a computer science degree on his resume.
There are financial incentives, too. In his speech, Obama announced that the Department of Labor would run a $100 million grant competition to fund programs that have a proven track record of helping underrepresented groups, like women, minorities, veterans, and people with disabilities, land tech jobs. Through TechHire, the group #YesWeCode also committed to donating $10 million in scholarships, which will fund 2,000 coding bootcamp scholarships for minorities.
Some liberal critics see the conservative billionaires' latest crusade as a PR stunt. Could it advance the cause anyway?
Here is the thing the Koch brothers wish their critics understood: They just want to help people.
"Everything we do is designed to help people improve their lives, whether you're talking about our business or our philanthropy," Mark Holden, the senior vice president and general counsel for Koch Industries, told me recently from his office in Wichita, where the multibillion-dollar international manufacturing conglomerate that Charles and David Koch inherited from their father is headquartered. "We think a free society, consistent with classical liberalism and individual liberties, is the key to success for everyone, and that's what drives a lot of our activities. And criminal-justice reform is good for all of us—the rich, the poor, and everyone else."
Though the Kochs are best known—and, to liberals, notorious—for the massive amounts of money they pour into politics, they have lately been calling attention to a less polarizing crusade: an attempt to address what they term "the overcriminalization of America." But not everyone is convinced that their efforts are quite so sincere.
Critics such as Robert Greenwald, director of the documentary Koch Brothers Exposed, suspect that the push to roll back the criminal code is really just the brothers' deregulatory agenda by another name. Indeed, Charles Koch, the company's chairman and CEO, has said he became interested in criminal-justice reform after a grand jury's 1995 indictment of a Koch refinery in Texas for 97 felony violations of environmental law. The company spent six years fighting the charges and eventually settled with the government for $10 million. Seen in this light, the criminal-justice pitch is just another attempt to manipulate the political process to advance the company's financial interests. That's the view of the liberal group American Bridge, which maintains the anti-Koch "Real Koch Facts" website. "Their own bottom line isn't just an important factor in their activity, it's the only thing," a spokesman for the group, Ben Ray, told me.
This is the question that has always swirled around the Kochs and their political efforts—the massive juggernaut of funding for conservative activism and candidates that critics dub the "Kochtopus": Are the brothers sincere ideologues dedicated to a libertarian vision for America? Or are they simply trying to tilt the political system to favor themselves and their companies?
Various tentacles of the Kochtopus have been involved in criminal-justice issues for about a decade; during that time, Charles Koch has quietly made contributions amounting to seven figures to the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, money that has been used to provide lawyers for poor defendants. In 2011, the group honored Koch Industries with its annual Defender of Justice award. "They are in complete agreement with us on the fundamental policy—to make the Sixth Amendment a reality for every person in the country," said the association's executive director, Norman Reimer.
But the Kochs' advocacy has become more vocal in recent months, from public statements to new partnerships with such groups as Families Against Mandatory Minimums, the American Civil Liberties Union, and even the liberal Center for American Progress. The bid for more attention for the reform effort has received overwhelmingly positive attention, and coincides with a new PR push to show Koch Industries in a friendlier light, including a "We Are Koch" national television campaign that casts the company as heartland job creators—prompting the Kochs' critics to suspect a whitewash. After all, the investment in criminal-justice reform pales in comparison to the hundreds of millions the Kochs and their donor network have spent electing Republicans, many of whom don't share their views on civil liberties, Greenwald noted. "Certainly the scales tip against the impact of this, except from the press point of view," he said of the reform push.
And yet the Kochs have found many willing partners on the left for this effort, even among their erstwhile critics. In 2011, the civil-rights activist and former Obama administration adviser Van Jones cited the Kochs as emblematic of the "economic tyranny" plaguing America, declaring, "We will not live on a national plantation run by the Koch brothers." He appears in the Koch Brothers Exposed(tagline: "The 1% at its very worst"). But Jones has welcomed the Kochs' support for his new Cut50 project, which aims to halve the prison population over the next decade. At a recent panel discussion in Washington, he sat next to Holden and gave him a hug. Koch Industries has agreed to participate in an upcoming conference Jones is sponsoring on prison reform. When I asked Jones if it made him uncomfortable to team up with people he's previously depicted as villains, he responded, "When you've got more than 2 million people behind bars, I'll fight alongside anybody to change those numbers."
A growing number of criminal justice reform organizations, among them the ACLU, Rebuild the Dream, and Just Leadership USA, are uniting behind one big goal: to reduce the prison population by 50 percent within the next 10 to 15 years.
With 2.3 million Americans incarcerated in prisons and jails, a 50 percent reduction would mean changing sentencing and parole rules to cut the net population by more than 1 million people, either by releasing current inmates or by not incarcerating future offenders.
Left mostly unsaid is that achieving the goal of this “Cut50” movement would entail touching what has long been a third-rail in criminal justice reform. To halve the prison population, sentencing would have to change not only for the so-called “non, non, nons” — non-violent, non-serious, and non-sex offender criminals — but also for some offenders convicted of violent crimes.
These changes could include shortening sentence lengths; making it easier for prisoners to win parole; deciding that probation or community service are more appropriate consequences than prison time for entire classes of crimes; diverting more suspects to mental illness programs or addiction treatment; and even redefining what offenses are considered violent in the first place.
Simple math shows why violent offenders would have to be part of any serious attempt to halve the number of prisoners. Consider the nation’s largest incarcerated population, the 1,315,000 held in state prisons. Only 4 percent are there for drug possession. An additional 12 percent are incarcerated for drug sales, manufacturing, or trafficking. Eleven percent are there for public order offenses such as prostitution or drunk driving, and 19 percent for property crimes such as fraud and car theft, including some property crimes that many consider serious or violent, such as home invasion.
That leaves a full 54 percent of state prisoners who are incarcerated for violent crimes, including murder, kidnapping, manslaughter, rape, sexual assault, and armed robbery.
So if 100 percent of all people convicted of drug, public order, and property crimes were released early or sentenced to punishments other than prison time, you would still need to free, say, 30 percent of robbery offenders to achieve a 50 percent reduction in the prison population.