NBC BLK: Could Criminal Justice Reform Create Bipartisanship?

Think fast – what event would bring together Van Jones, Newt Gingrich, “The Wire” and “Homicide” creator David Simon, “Orange is The New Black” creator Piper Kerman, Eric Holder, Rick Perry, the Koch Brothers AND the ACLU in one room?

I couldn’t think of one either, until I attended the Bipartisan Summit for Criminal Justice reform held in Washington D.C. on Thursday. The event, brought together some of the most politically disparate and oppositional forces in American politics, who on this particular issue, have finally come to an agreement. America’s criminal justice system is broken, and it’s in everyone’s best interest to finally do something about it.

Race, class and region have always complicated how politicians tackle law enforcement. Which is why in a political environment polarized by police violence and protest it was amazing that this conference of far right and far left groups came together.

“This was such a ripe moment for this, there was a vacuum and we filled it” says Jessica Jackson the national director of #CUT50, an organization dedicated to cutting the nation’s incarcerated population by 50% over the next decade.

The conference itself was the brainchild of political polar opposites Newt Gingrich and Van Jones. After battling each other for over a year on CNN’s “Crossfire,” the two only agreed on one issue: America’s incarceration rate was too high. Jackson refers to it as their “CeaseFire” moment. What initially began as small lunch of maybe 100 people, grew into a conference of over 600 including sponsors and speakers from the White House, FreedomWorks and the Center for American Progress.

How Did we Get Here ?

When politicians on the right are still doing legislative backflips to keep the death penalty and liberals are afraid of being “Dukakis Soft” on crime, how did something like incarceration move the political will? Money.

“Governors of states are looking at the budgets and they can’t balance. Prisons are #1 in the budget and schools are usually 17th.” Says Jackson. “Its impossible in a recession to balance budgets when you’re spending this much on incarceration. The narrative is changing, it’s not just “those people” who are going to prison.”

The financial costs of imprisoning the U.S. population at a rate similar to apartheid South Africa is hitting this nation’s “laboratories of democracy” in the pocketbook. Georgia Governor Nathan Deal spoke about how it costs almost $19,000 a year to maintain a person in juvenile detention. Former Texas governor Rick Perry spoke about how building and maintaining prisons was a serious drain on state budgets. What’s more, even the costs associated with police misconduct and brutality, in the form of lawsuits, fines and settlements are bringing the left and right together to restructure how law enforcement occurs.

What Does Bipartisanship Look Like?

The solutions offered at the conference, certainly by the higher profile speakers like Eric Holder and Mark Holden, senior counsel for Koch Industries, were varied but made a tremendous amount of sense and the applause didn’t have even a hint of partisan bias. Via video conference Rick Perry spoke about closing down prisons and spending more money on prevention and specialized criminal courts to deal with non-violent offenders.

Georgia Governor Nathan Deal literally got choked up on stage talking about how much drug courts for non-violent offenders were cutting down incarceration rates and putting people back on the right path. “If you ever run out of material for a good sermon,” he started slowly. “Go to a drug court graduation. Those people, they may not look like much, but when they graduate, they are more proud than probably anybody in this room was at college graduation.”

Several leaders talked about “Ban the Box” initiatives in states, where state job applications are no longer allowed to have the “have you ever committed a felony” check box, something that literally keeps thousands of convicts trying to re-enter society from obtaining even the lowest level jobs.

“Orange is The New Black” creator Piper Kerman discussed the challenges of re-entry for women, and the need for stronger communities both in and out of incarceration for reform. David Simon creator of “Homicide: Life on the Street,” “The Wire” and “Treme,” spoke both to the audience as a whole and then did a sit down discussion with President Obama about prison reform. He eloquently pointed out that the drug war had ruined two generations of police, by focusing training on getting arrests as opposed to actually solving crime. Throwing a bunch of guys up against a wall and emptying their pockets doesn’t solve crimes, it just fills prisons.

“The arrest rates for rape, robbery, murder are going down, and the one thing that makes cities safer is competent retroactive investigation of felonies.” Simon said to a nodding president Obama.

“But to do that you have to use and not be used by informants, you have to know how to testify in court, you have to write a search warrant that will hold up.”

While the actual number of rapes, robberies and murders in America have gone down in the last two decades, the clearance rate of solving these crimes has dropped by almost 10 percent.

It wasn’t a complete love fest at the event. There was an odd tension when former House Speaker Newt Gingrich took the stage to introduce David Simon and essentially endorsed “Stop and Frisk” policies. This was followed by nervous laughter when Gingrich joked that he was looking forward to Eric Holder returning to private sector as soon as possible.

Over the last 6 years we Americans have had to suffer through some of the most rancorous political dialogue in modern American history, bolstered by an unfettered explosion of money being pumped into politics by private sources dedicated to demonizing all opposing ideologies.

Moderator Van Jones joked that there were several conference attendees who were on YouTube decrying him as a communist and anti-American. And yet despite this, a room full of power, money and strong ideas felt like real change in America. People left the conference with work to do and new ideas to implement at the state level rather than just business cards and brochures.

I don’t know if I believe that the U.S. prison population will be cut by 50 percent by 2025, but I do know that for the first time in years I actually believe Republicans and Democrats, at least the ones in that room, are equally committed to trying.

This article originally appeared online at NBC BLK.

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