Left, right agree on reducing prison population by @BloggersRUs

Left, right agree on reducing prison population

by Tom Sullivan

The Bipartisan Summit for Criminal Justice Reform in Washington, D.C. on Thursday brought together a strange-bedfellows coalition focused on reducing the country's swollen prison population: from former House Speaker Newt Gingrich to former Obama adviser Van Jones. The ACLU and Koch Industries were listed as program partners. Press coverage seems limited. Time wrote:

If you mistakenly wandered into the Bipartisan Summit on Criminal Justice Reform, you might have thought you had fallen into an alternate universe. Scores of liberal and conservative activists, policy wonks and lawmakers gathered for an all-day conference that seemed to defy all the old saws about Washington gridlock. Former GOP House Speaker Newt Gingrich lauded Democratic Senator Cory Booker, who volleyed back praise for his Republican partners. Even Attorney General Eric Holder drew warm applause in a ballroom dotted with conservatives.

But as unusual as that may be in Washington, it’s becoming a routine sight when it comes to criminal justice reform. In recent months, a growing bipartisan alliance has formed around the need to change a prison system that critics say is broken and bloated. Thursday’s crowd was the clearest sign yet of the coalition’s breadth. “When you have an idea whose time has come,” said Jones, one of the hosts of the summit, “it winds up being an unstoppable force.”

This has been a long time coming. Since passage of New Gingrich's Taking Back Our Streets Act, part of his 1994 "Contract With America," and the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, "written by Joe Biden ... and signed by Bill Clinton," the country's prison population doubled, writes Shane Bauer for Mother Jones:

Today, Gingrich has changed his tune. "There is an urgent need to address the astronomical growth in the prison population, with its huge costs in dollars and lost human potential," Gingrich wrote in a 2011 op-ed in the Washington Post. "We can no longer afford business as usual with prisons. The criminal justice system is broken, and conservatives must lead the way in fixing it."

The goal of Jones' #cut50 campaign is to reduce the U.S. prison population by 50 percent in ten years. The question is just how that happens. It's not just low-level drug offenders occupying those cells.

“Half the people in state prisons today have been convicted of a violent offense," Marc Mauer, the executive director of the Sentencing Project, told Slate. But "violent offender" is a rather loosely defined category:

... there are criminal statutes all over the country that routinely result in defendants being classified as “violent” in the eyes of the law even though most people would never describe their deeds that way. Many crimes are legally considered violent “even if no force is used, let alone injury suffered,” said Jonathan Simon, the director of the Center for the Study of Law & Society at the University of California in Berkeley, in an email. He added, “violence is a much more capacious legal category than most people assume.”

Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) told the conference, "We need to redefine what is considered violent crime." But, writes Leon Neyfakh in Slate, none of the proposed reform currently addresses that issue. Defining down "violent crime" might not sit too well in certain sectors.

The alliance naturally raises concerns about what other political goals might come wrapped in proposed solutions. Still, if the left was acting alone pursuing this goal, conservatives opponents likely have the money and clout to stop it cold. An alliance, however uneasy and expedient, could get it done. But that remains to be seen. As Jones put it, "There’s no asterisk on the vote total if some of these people are opportunists.... If somebody’s sitting in a prison cell someplace doing thirty years for a nonviolent drug offense, are they going to care why somebody voted to shorten their sentence? They probably aren’t…."

I think he's right about that.