You’d be forgiven for thinking a Congress that passes meaningful legislation is a relic from the last century. Van Jones understands. Still, the CNN host is one of the architects, along with Donna Brazile, Newt Gringrich, and conservative activist Pat Nolan, of the Bipartisan Summit to Reform the Criminal Justice System.
Jones, along with Koch Industries General Counsel Mark Holden, spoke on a conference call Tuesday to discuss the summit, which is set for Thursday in Washington, DC. A diverse range of interests–the Koch-controlled FreedomWorks, Center For American Progress, ALEC, and the Center for Human Rights, to name a few–have come together to focus attention on the “incarceration industry” as Jones put it.
“If you had said six months ago that these groups could come together for anything other than a food fight, I’d have said you’re crazy,” Jones said.
But the numbers cannot be ignored. The United States has five percent of the world’s population but 25 percent of its prisoners. And it costs more to pay for a year of someone being in prison than it does for a year of college. It’s an $80 billion a year industry.
“We’ve got to stop looking at prisons as an economic engine,” Jones said. “Economic interests should not trump the other functions of prisons.”
And, as recent events have shown, the criminal just system is disproportionately biased against the poor and persons of color.
“(Prisons) disadvantage the poor. (The poor) can’t get out of poverty or the criminal justice system once they’re in it,” Holden said. “We’re destroying families and their hopes and dreams.”
Holden added that we should not be surprised at recidivism rates, because when we treat people like felons, they act felons.
Anticipating possible criticism from the right, Holden said, “We’re not soft on crime. We’re too tough.”
Jones believes criminal justice reform speaks to the core values of both parties and believes that a bill–there are five in the Senate and eight in the House–could make it to the president’s desk by the end of the year.
Holden expressed satisfaction at the bipartisan nature of the effort, but was not prepared to say success at prison reform would usher in a new era of cooperation in Washington.
“I’m not naive. I don’t know if it will carry over, but this is a big positive first step.”
Noting how the media seizes on negativity, Jones added, “I hope the media rewards politicians for having political courage (and working with the other side).”