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America's incarceration problem hits bipartisan sweet spot

As Washington remains in a seemingly perpetual state of partisan gridlock, one issue has found a bipartisan sweet spot, drawing an unlikely coalition of allies.

WASHINGTON — Among the headliners at a summit on criminal justice reform in D.C. this week were many of the usual suspects, including a noteworthy lineup of liberal activists and community advocates who have long damned the perils of mass incarceration and the prison industrial complex.

There was former Obama adviser Van Jones, Allison Holcomb of the ACLU, and Neera Tanden, president of the Center for American Progress. There was a host of formerly incarcerated people who spoke of the damage done by long prison terms for petty offenses, and blue-state elected officials like New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, who said he was pushing for legislation to scale back the decades-long war on drugs, generally thought of as a proxy war on poor whites and minorities.

“These are momentous and complex issues calling for urgent and concrete solutions, and it is abundantly clear that we cannot allow the status quo to persist,” Attorney General Eric Holder told the audience of hundreds who gathered inside a swanky Marriott hotel on Thursday.

As speaker after speaker broke down the virtues of reentry programs, proportionate sentencing and community policing, people nodded their heads, applauded and said "Amen."

Those reactions weren’t surprising given the choir to which these guests were preaching. But what was significant— perhaps astonishing in Washington where partisan gridlock and bickering remain the hymn of choice— was who was right alongside that choir and Amen-ing with the best of them.

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An equally noteworthy roster of red-state Republicans, right-wing conservative Christians and tea-party benefactors joined their progressive counterparts in a rare show of bipartisanship calling for a broad set of criminal justice reforms.

“As conservatives, for years we tended to be critical of other parts of government but turned a blind eye to the excesses of the justice system,” said Pat Nolan of the American Conservative Union Foundation. “But the damage done to families, the damage done to communities, the human costs in addition to the financial costs aren’t worth it.”

Nolan was joined at the event -- the Bipartisan Summit On Criminal Justice Reform -- by other notable conservatives including Mark Holden, general counsel for Koch Industries, former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich and Tim Head, executive director of the Faith and Freedom Coalition. Congressmen from both sides of the aisle either spoke at the summit or delivered remarks via video, including Democrats Elijah Cummings and Tulsi Gabbard, and Republicans Bob Goodlatte and Mike Lee.

The summit was organized by Van Jones, Gingrich, Holden and Donna Braziel, chair of the DNC’s Voting Rights Institute, as part of Jones’s #Cut50 initiative, a bipartisan effort aimed at reducing America’s incarcerated population by 50% over the next 10 years.

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The costs of America's criminal justice system are vast. One in 100 Americans is currently incarcerated. Many more are under some sort of government supervision. Altogether, the costs are estimated at $80 billion a year.

"Only a nation that is rich and stupid would continue to spend billions of dollars on a system that does not change the hearts of offenders, leaves victims' needs unmet and has our people living in fear in the community."'

The initiative to fix what many describe as "broken," has brought together an unlikely coalition of allies from across racial, geographic and political lines, a grand kumbaya moment as a number of other political battles being waged in Washington have exemplified the entrenched dysfunction of government.

Christian conservatives say they are drawn to reform by a strong sense of redemption and the immorality of breaking up homes and families. Libertarians don’t like the idea of government steam-rolling individual liberties via bad police policy. And fiscal conservatives say they can’t make sense of the bad investment of billions of dollars states spend each year on incarcerating non-violent offenders who often return to society as unemployable drains on society.

“Only a nation that is rich and stupid would continue to spend billions of dollars on a system that does not change the hearts of offenders, leaves victims' needs unmet and has our people living in fear in the community,” said Nolan, quoting a conservative colleague.

“We’re not getting enough public safety for all we’re spending in addition to the collateral damage,” Nolan added. “A lot of my liberal friends think conservatives are involved in this because of fiscal reasons … but that’s really not what motivates conservatives. It’s the moral issue,” he said. “That’s what we have in common on the left and right. We believe in human dignity, that each individual is worthy of respect.”

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 During a break in the summit, Jones said, “I could see that this was the issue that we could agree on.”

Jones said he met Newt Gingrich two years ago on the set of CNN, where they’re both contributors, and that he sat in the green room with various Republicans, many of whom he chatted with during commercial breaks. And a light bulb went off. “There is a pent-up demand in this country to see something get done by Washington D.C., on any topic and this is the one crack that’s available for all that good will to flow through,” Jones said. “If there were three or four other issues that you could have bipartisan agreement on this issue may not rise to the top. But there’s literally nothing else,” he said.

Jones rattled off a list of brick walls: immigration, health care, trade, taxes and foreign policy. “They’re all going to be bogged down in partisan bickering and gridlock. So, whatever good will there is to work together will all come through his door,” he said.

Another goal is to get a bipartisan, comprehensive criminal justice reform bill through Congress and onto President Obama's desk for signing by early next year. The bill would be a one-two punch for the administration's recent policy changes on sentencing and proportional prosecution led by Holder's Justice Department with its Smart on Crime Initiative.

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The timing for an expanded, bipartisan push could be perfect. Violent crime rates have fallen precipitously all across the country, a far cry from the "bad old days," which were characterized by fear of so-called “super predators,” a pseudonym for young, inner-city blacks who’d become boogeymen for white mainstream society.

That fear and very real bloodletting in many cities brought on by a booming illegal drug trade led to a virtual hysteria among elected officials and policymakers who, with broad support from both sides of the aisle, enacted a tough slate of laws that made even tangential dealings in guns or drugs punishable by long prison sentences.  

The so-called war on drugs of the 1980s led to the expansion of mandatory-minimum sentencing. The nation’s prisons were bursting at the seams, filled mostly by poor and minority inmates. At that time, particularly on the federal level and in many states, the prison population shifted from being mostly violent offenders to those locked up on non-violent drug offenses

As a result, the U.S. prison population exploded. While the U.S. is home to just 5% of the world’s population, it has 25% of the world’s jail and prison population.

“There’s an increasing realization on the left but also on the right, politically, that what we are doing is counterproductive. Either from a libertarian perspective, the way we treat non-violent drug crimes is problematic. And from a fiscal perspective it’s breaking the bank,” Obama said in a recorded interview with David Simon, creator of TV's "The Wire," which was shown on a big-screen during Thursday’s summit.

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“You end up spending so much more on prisons than you would with these kids being in school or even being in college that it’s counterproductive and it means everybody’s taxes are going up or at least services that everybody uses are being squeezed or we can’t hire cops to deal with violent crimes,” Obama said. "We’re all responsible for at least finding a solution to this. And the encouraging thing is I think that is in part because violent crime is going down in a lot of big cities, people are more open to having a discussion about this and I think we have to seize that opportunity.”

Jones, who briefly served as an adviser to Obama before right-wing conservatives waged a campaign to see him ousted from the White House, said he has found a sweet spot with conservatives on this issue. “Literally, I’m on calls figuring out how to strategize against the Koch brothers on Keystone and the next call I’m talking with them about how to strategize on criminal justice,” Jones said during a break in the summit.

He said some of his liberal friends have wondered how he could work with the likes of the Koch brothers, who have actively worked against various progressive efforts, or Matt Kibbe of Freedom Works, who worked hard to end Jones’s tenure in the Obama administration.

“People have been coming up to me and saying, 'Van Jones, how can you work with the Koch brothers? How can you work with Newt Gingrich?  How can you work with ALEC? How can you work with these right wingers?' And I said, 'who am I supposed to work with?'” Jones said.

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Some Democrats, he said, like California Gov. Jerry Brown, “won’t touch criminal justice with a 10-foot poll.” Others are afraid to get a “Willlie Horton” pulled on them if they don’t appear tough on crime.  Instead, much of the leading reformers in the criminal justice world are Republicans in red states like Gov. Rick Perry of Texas, Gov. Nathan Deal of Georgia and Gov. John Kasich of Ohio, and others who are finding concrete ways to lower their prison populations, reform sentencing laws and close prisons.

Jones said some of the liberal elite suffer a kind of “affluenza” in which they dismiss anyone who doesn’t agree with them but then want to dictate strategy. “Both political parties played politics with this issue and built this massive incarceration industry. Bill Clinton, as much as I love him, was a mass incarcerator. When Bill Clinton came in there were a million people behind bars. When he left there were 2 million,” Jones said.

"Bill Clinton, as much as I love him, was a mass incarcerator. When Bill Clinton came in there were a million people behind bars. When he left there were 2 million."'

“I don’t’ have a problem with anything that’s going to advance my community. I have no permanent friends. I have no permanent enemies. I have permanent interests. And my interests are in reducing incarceration for poor black and brown folk. That’s my community and I’ll work against anybody, like Jerry Brown, and I’ll work with anybody like the Koch Brothers to further the interests of my community. That’s called being an adult.”

Deal said that he has managed to get wide, bipartisan support on efforts in his state, and a succession of unanimous votes on legislation that has driven Georgia’s incarceration rate down by double digits.

When he came into office in 2011, Deal said that his state was the 10th most populated state but had the fourth highest incarceration rate. One in 13 Georgians was behind bars. And 60% of those incarcerated were admitted for non-violent offenses.

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He said he had to rethink the entire way criminal justice worked in the state. He convened a task force from a wide range of stakeholders and set out to actually implement their recommendations over a period of three years. They set up diversion courts for adult and juvenile offenders; he bolstered educational opportunities for young inmates, created strong reentry programs, and the state began closing underutilized prison facilities. Since the reforms, Deal said there’s been a solid decline in his prison population, including among African-Americans, a group disproportionately jailed all across the country. Deal said there was a decline in admissions among black men of 19% and of black women at 33%.

“You have to explain to the public what the importance of the issue is for them to get involved and get concerned about it,” Deal said. “And I think when you show that if you work together on a bipartisan basis and the end product actually achieves the goals that both sides have in mind then that forms a basis of having more cooperation on other issues in the future and that’s what I am hopeful of.”

For his part, Gingrich said the relationship between Democrats and Republicans, the left and right, needs to be nurtured and worked on. “I think you want to start with the idea that these are good ideas for America, they are not Republican or Democrat, they are just good ideas,” Gingrich said. “I think if you get in the habit of being bipartisan then you get in the habit of being in rooms with each other and talking to each and each time you do it, it gets a little easier to do it one more time. And after a while, it becomes pretty easy. But I think this is a big first step.”