“If you do not yet believe that bipartisan criminal justice reform is possible inside the dysfunction of Washington, it is time to put away your doubts.”
By Van Jones and Christine Leonard
Originally published on CNN.com
(CNN) If you do not yet believe that bipartisan criminal justice reform is possible inside the dysfunction of Washington, it is time to put away your doubts.
Over the last two weeks, we have witnessed a historic surge of momentum for the prospects of justice reform — punctuated by this week’s Bipartisan Summit on Fair Justice, co-hosted by our organizations, the Coalition for Public Safety and #cut50. The summit is drawing commitments from leading, bipartisan reform leaders and congressional voices to advance comprehensive reforms this year.
To understand the gravity of this news, you need only think back to the state of play at the beginning of the year. Almost nobody was talking about criminal justice as a potential point of breakthrough. Yet in mere months, we have gone from whispers of hope among activists to proclamations from those in power.
Last week, President Obama called for an overhaul of how we treat low-level offenders. It was a move that brought a chorus of applause from across the political spectrum. The President’s commitment to change was both highly personal and clear: “Mass incarceration makes our country worse off, and we need to do something about it.”
Inmates across the country were listening. One man, in a California State prison, told us: “You have no idea how much hope this brought us on the inside.” Another inmate, in a federal penitentiary serving a sentence of life without parole for a nonviolent crack cocaine offense, said: “I am not gonna lie; I went up to my room and cried.”
Hope has been building among those behind bars, their families, communities and justice reform advocates nationwide.
And yet, fears remain. After all, the country has had its hopes raised before — on other “bipartisan” issues — only to have D.C.’s perpetual rancor and division derail the positive momentum.
Those concerns vanished on Thursday — when House Speaker John Boehner announced his commitment to getting people out of prison “who really don’t need to be there” and signaled his commitment to bringing justice reform legislation before the full House chamber for a vote.
So we stand now at a surprising place of national consensus. In the U.S. Senate, leaders are working together across the aisle on a deal. President Obama and Speaker John Boehner are in rare agreement.
According to a recent poll of likely voters released by the ACLU, the vast majority of Republicans, Democrats and independents believe we need to rethink our approach to punishment.
As Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Maryland, said at the Bipartisan Summit on Criminal Justice Reform in March of this year, “the stars have aligned.”
Our major leaders acknowledge that our justice system is broken. The only question is how to fix it.
America is ready for strong, smart reforms that reduce the overly harsh punishment for nonviolent drug offenders. As outlined in the Coalition for Public Safety’s “Fair Sentencing and Fair Chances” effort and as discussed at the Bipartisan Summit on Criminal Justice Reform earlier this year, there are many more areas with strong bipartisan consensus:
● Ensuring fair and appropriate treatment of juveniles and young adults
● Reforming federal and state sentencing laws and reducing mandatory minimum sentences
● Expanding alternatives to incarceration, reducing recidivism and safely reducing prison and jail populations
● Enabling prisons to offer programs that allow people to make a positive transition back into their communities
Decades of failed policies and wrongheaded politics brought us here. It will undoubtedly take years to transform the justice system. While solutions will not come overnight, we have — at long last — reached a tipping point in the quest for justice.
Van Jones is the president of Dream Corps and Rebuild The Dream, which promote innovative solutions for America’s economy. He was President Barack Obama’s green jobs adviser in 2009. A best-selling author, he is also founder of Green for All, a national organization working to build a green economy. Follow him on Twitter @VanJones68. Christine Leonard is the executive director of the Coalition for Public Safety, the nation’s largest bipartisan organization focused on criminal justice reform. The opinions expressed in this commentary are theirs.