By Nicholas C. Fondacaro | Watchdog Arena
Imagine a political cause that is so powerfully moving that it can bring together people and organizations that normally campaign against each other, and have them call with one voice for something meaningful to be done. No, it’s not an attack by a foreign power–it’s criminal justice reform.
On July 22, the Coalition for Public Safety held the “Bipartisan Summit on Fair Justice.” The event was attended by dozens of organizations and politicians from both sides of the political spectrum. Left-leaning groups like the American Civil Liberties Union and Center for American Progress teamed up with right-wing groups like FreedomWorks and the Faith & Freedom Coalition. Two members of the House Judiciary committee – one Republican and one Democrat — were also on hand to talk about their bipartisan criminal justice reform bill.
These groups met to discuss the steps state and federal governments need to make to have meaningful criminal justice reform. The master of ceremonies and #cut50 president, Van Jones, joked that the people on the stage were not photo shopped together.
The statistics about America’s criminal justice system shared throughout the summit were sobering to the audience. For instance, America makes up 25 percent of the world’s prison population, one-third of all American adults have a criminal history, 2.7 million children have a parent in prison, and $80 billion per year is spent on prisons.
Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates addressed the topic of mandatory minimum sentences. She said that mandatory minimums do not allow for judges to calibrate sentences based on the criminal intent and threat of the accused. Others elaborated on how many are sent to prison for non-violent and victimless crimes, and for crimes some did not know they committed.
Other presenters emphasized the need for Congress to look to the states to see how to do reform “the right way.” Marc Levin, from the Texas-based Right on Crime, talked about how Texas’ criminal justice reforms were able to cut the incarceration rate, the crime rate, recidivism rate, resulting with the state being able to reduce spending. Texas’ reforms included creating specialized courts to handle particular offenses and local based probation programs.
Senator and presidential candidate Rand Paul was present, and praised California for their reforms in proposition 47. Proposition 47 lowers non-violent felonies to misdemeanors. By making the crimes misdemeanors, it allows for the convicted to not have to check the “convicted of a felony” box on applications when they reenter society and are trying to get a job. It also allows for current inmates to petition the court to qualify for prop 47.
Reps. Bobby Scott (D-VA) and Jim Sensenbrenner (R-WI) were there to speak about their bipartisan legislation, the Safe, Accountable, Fair, and Effective (SAFE) Justice Act. In his speech, Scott said that he was tired of politicians “playing games” and that meaningful actions needed to be taken. The SAFE Justice Act hits on many of the concerns brought up during the summit.
The bill aims to reduce recidivism rates by incentivizing productive behavior while in prison. Inmates would be able to earn time off of their sentences for learning trade skills and performing well while incarcerated. The goal is to have offenders prepared with skills so they don’t have to turn to a life crime to survive when they’re out of prison.
The bill also takes a couple pages out of Texas’ playbook by “expand[ing] eligibility for pre-judgment probation; promot[ing] greater use of probation for lower-level offenders; and encourage[ing] judicial districts to open drug, veteran, mental health and other problem solving courts.”
Mandatory minimums would be reformed under the bill, as well, by only targeting “high-level traffickers.” It also allows “eligible offenders to petition for resentencing” if they were put away because of minimum sentencing.
With the bill soon to leave the House Judiciary Committee, the coalition of unlikely allies may soon see victory for their decades-long efforts for criminal justice reform.
This article was written by a contributor of Watchdog Arena, Franklin Center’s network of writers, bloggers, and citizen journalists.