A summit on mass incarceration is bringing together odd bedfellows from across the political spectrum on Thursday — for what organizers hope will be a “bipartisan breakthrough of massive proportions” that will make criminal justice reform a priority for policymakers at the federal level.
Organizers and speakers include as varied a bunch imaginable in Washington, ranging from Democratic Senator Cory Booker to former Republican Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, as well as Koch Industries representatives and leading civil rights organizations. Attorney General Eric Holder, Orange is the New Black author Piper Kerman, and David Simon, the creator of The Wire, are also among the guest list.
“This thing has turned into Woodstock for criminal justice,” Van Jones, a civil rights activist and the event’s main organizer, said in a call with reporters ahead of the event. “People are gonna look at photographs of this and swear it was photoshopped.”
Jones thought about launching the effort with Gingrich, with whom he co-hosted a show on CNN. “We didn’t agree on anything — except criminal justice reform,” he said.
The movement for prison reform has gained momentum over the last several years, largely thanks to the effort of liberal advocates — but more conservative lawmakers, especially at the state level, have also jumped on board to push changes to a system that incarcerates one in 100 Americans and costs taxpayers billions every year.
“What we are doing right now in criminal justice violates the core principles of both political parties,” said Jones. “The right is very concerned about individual liberty and limited government; on the left we talk a lot about racial and social justice.”
While the motivations bringing them to the table vary, many political and business leaders of opposing ideologies and party lines seem to agree the status quo is both unjust and untenable.
“We’re involved in this because we believe in the rule of law, we believe in the power of the individual, individual liberties and the rights and dignity of human beings,” Mark Holden, general counsel and vice president of Koch Industries, said on the call. “At the end of the day I think whether you’re a social conservative, a social liberal, a fiscal conservative, or a libertarian, it doesn’t really matter… What we hope to do is reform the system to make it more just.”
“Right now we’re using the criminal justice system for things it wasn’t designed to do,” he added, recalling his time working as a prison guard while in college. “What we’re trying to do is make us more sane and humane, follow the bill of rights, honor the dignity of individuals and the rights they have.”
Statistics on mass incarceration in the US have become household knowledge in recent years — like the fact that America accounts for 5 percent of the world’s population but 25 percent of the world’s prisoners.
“That’s way out of line,” said Jones, who runs the nonprofit #cut50, which aims to reduce the US prison population by 50 percent in the next 10 years. That’s not the goal of everyone attending Thursday’s summit, Jones clarified — but organizers are looking for common ground.