Get tough on crime.
That was the mantra throughout the United States, both at the local and federal levels, as crime boomed toward the end of the 1970s. Many laws were passed, putting more police on the street and inflicting higher and higher penalties for various crimes in direct response to fears over drugs and gang violence.
At Thursday’s Bipartisan Summit on Criminal Justice Reform in Washington, D.C., the complaint was that these laws were too effective, resulting in America’s dependence on law enforcement and a legal system to deal with society’s ills. Speakers at the summit said that poverty, addiction, homelessness and mental illness have become criminalized, and the only tools police and the courts have in their arsenal to deal with these issues are arrest and imprisonment.
This, said the lawmakers, religious leaders and activists at the summit, is what has to change.
“We must reject the notion that old practices are unchangeable, that the policies that have governed our institutions for decades cannot be altered and that the way things have always been done is the way they must always be done,” said Attorney General Eric Holder to an audience of more than 600 attendees at the summit.
Holder, who was warmly received by the crowd, rattled off the stark statistics from the too successful war on crime: that the U.S. federal prison population has grown by 800 percent since 1980; that the U.S. is only 5 percent of the world’s population but holds 25 percent of the world’s prisoners; that an estimated 1 in 28 American children has a parent behind bars, and for African-American children that ratio is 1 in 9.
“It is time—long past time—to take decisive action in order to end a vicious cycle of poverty, criminality and incarceration that traps too many individuals, degrades too many families and devastates too many communities,” Holder said.
This issue—the moral issue—was the main one both sides of the political aisle claimed drew them to the summit, which was hosted by activist and founder of #cut50 Van Jones, former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, Democratic political analyst Donna Brazile, and Pat Nolan, a former politician and conservative activist. Over and over again, activists and politicians alike focused on the devastating and costly effect of using the criminal-justice system to deal with nonviolent crime, homelessness, mental illness and drug addiction.
“Conservatives turned a blind eye to injustices to criminal-justice system,” said Nolan during his morning address. He added, “The damage done to families, communities, the human cost in addition to the financial cost, wasn’t worth it. … We’re not getting enough public safety for all that we’re spending.”
Nolan pushed back against claims that some conservatives were only interested in the reform movement from a fiscal perspective, saying that it is the moral issue that fuels them.
“We believe in human dignity,” Nolan said. “Each individual is worthy of respect. No matter what we’ve done, we can redeem ourselves. We can turn our life around. It is our obligation. Look for that commonality. … That idea of human dignity; that’s what binds us together.”
So if this is an issue that both sides can agree on, did our government go wrong? Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Va.) laid the blame squarely on war-on-crime fervor and overeager politicians seeking to gain favor by presenting themselves as the toughest on crime.