Dream Corps

Could comprehensive federal criminal justice reform become law within the next year?

That was the hope of former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, speaking at Thursday’s Bipartisan Summit for Criminal Justice Reform.

“It has got to stay – in a disciplined way – truly bipartisan on both sides. And if it does, I think we could, either late this year or early next year, have a genuinely historic achievement,” he said.

The conference was sponsored by an unlikely coalition of allies – including the American Civil Liberties Union and Koch Industries Inc. – and, true to its name, the Republican Gingrich was joined on stage by Democratic Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey.

“There’s a lot of good legislation and a lot of good energy,” Booker said. “But I’m telling you there’s tremendous work to do to get those bills through the committee and onto the floor.”

Booker has sponsored the REDEEM Act with Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., which would allow certain nonviolent offenders to seal their criminal records while promoting changes to the process for juveniles in the criminal justice system.

A number of other lawmakers from both sides of the aisle were on hand to tout their initiatives.

“I do firmly believe that we must put solutions into practice by passing smart, bipartisan, bicameral legislation,” Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., said. Thursday also marked the introduction of Cummings’ Police CAMERA Act – co-sponsored by a bipartisan slate of senators and representatives – which would create a federal grant program to fund the purchase of police body cameras for state and local law enforcement while authorizing a study of their impact on police practices.

Rep. Doug Collins, R-Ga., previewed an upcoming bill with Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., the Comprehensive Justice and Mental Health Act, that would “increase public safety and improve access to treatment for people with mental disorders in the criminal justice system,” Collins said, via video feed.

One of the movement’s most crucial Republican allies, Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, also appeared in a video message (House action on the budget prevented some Republicans from appearing in person) to affirm his support. He said his committee would be considering the current system of penalties for federal crimes and whether changes certain states had made to their prison systems could be replicable on a federal level.

Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., meanwhile urged senators currently debating the reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind Act to consider amendments that would address the so-called “school-to-prison pipeline,” which refers to the arrest of young people in schools – particularly minorities and those with learning disorders – for minor classroom misconduct.

“We can’t criminalize learning disabilities,” he said. “We can’t put a subset of kids on a steep descent into the criminal justice system before their 16th birthday.”

Many of the attendees had been working on the issues of criminal justice reform long before the success of bipartisan initiatives at the state level caught the attention of national politicians.

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