Summiteers Agree: Too Many Inmates, Long Road To Reform

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An unusual “Bipartisan Summit on Criminal Justice Reform” in Washington yesterday produced seemingly universal agreement that there are far too many inmates in U.S. prisons and jails.

Now the question is whether the event, organized primarily by social entrepreneur and President Barack Obama supporter Van Jones and former Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich, will markedly increase the momentum for significant justice system changes.

Gingrich, who presided over the House during part of the get-tough-on-crime era of the late 1990s but since has changed his mind on incarceration issues, marveled that “this might be the most bipartisan event in D.C. in the next six months.”

The other “co-hosts” were Democratic strategist Donna Brazile and Pat Nolan, prominent conservative justice activist and former colleague of the late prison reformer Chuck Colson.

Some 800 people signed up for the event, which took place in a Washington, D.C. hotel. Those who stayed all day heard a stream of rhetoric from a parade of politicians and experts, including Obama himself (on video) ,Attorney General Eric Holder and Secretary Labor Thomas Perez (both in person), members of Congress of both parties, and a stirring speech from Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal, who established that Republican governors can lead the way on justice reform.

Summit organizer Jones has set up a group called #Cut50, which aims to slash the U.S. prison and jail population of about 2.3 million in half.

There was little talk of that goal yesterday, however, with many speakers conceding that reductions are likely to take a long time, given the several decades it has taken to amass so many inmates and the long terms many are serving.

Problem Goes ‘Beyond’ Justice System

Participants acknowledged that justice reform is very complicated, with much policy made at a state and local level and with the problems going far beyond the justice system to include, for example, the “school-to-prison pipeline” discussed by Sen. Christopher Murphy (D-CT) that, in many areas, sends youth accused of classroom infractions into juvenile court.

Speakers also made clear that many reform efforts have been underway for years and that a combination of a long decline in crime rates and fixes many states have made in the way lawbreakers are handled have helped to stabilize the national prison and jail count.

The main frustrations are that many on both left and right maintain that the changes haven’t gone far enough, and that possibly tens of thousands of current prisoners who were sentenced under laws like “three strikes and you’re out” are faced with life prison terms for arguably minor offenses, mostly involving drug charges.

Much of the discussion involved the prospects of more improvements in states.

Philanthropist George Soros has pledged $50 million to the American Civil Liberties Union to promote cuts in mass incarceration. The ACLU’s Alison Holcomb told the summit that one focus would be on ballot initiatives in states next year, presumably resembling California’s Proposition 47, which downgraded the legal classification of key crime categories to enable shorter sentences and periods of time served.

Georgia’s Gov. Deal, who was elected in 2010, described his intensive drive to reform Georgia’s justice system for both adults and juveniles, which has resulted in a cut of 3,000 in the prison population. Deal’s program promotes local “accountability courts,” in which judges oversee the progress of convicted criminals in the community as an alternative to keeping them in prison.

In a taped presentation, another prominent Republican, Ohio Gov. John Kasich, talked about similar changes in his state, including an increase in criminals’ “intensive rehabilitation in the community.”

Many reformers agree that because many Democrats have been wary of advocating justice reforms involving prison cuts for fear they will be portrayed as “soft on crime,” Republicans leadership will be key to making changes stick.

Jones reminded the summit of GOP presidential candidate George H. W. Bush’s slamming Democrat Michael Dukakis in 1988 for his prisoner furlough program in Massachusetts.

There also was much talk of potential reform at the federal level, led by Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ), who has vowed to make criminal justice one of his major issues. Booker has support from Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) and Ted Cruz (R-TX), both likely presidential candidates.

‘Glacial Pace’

Speakers agreed that senior senators like Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-IA) are standing in the way of major sentencing reforms. Booker expressed optimism about changes but conceded that “Congress moves at a glacial pace.”

The solidly Republican House could be worse. House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-VA) made an appearance at the summit via video. While he echoed the common GOP complaints about “over-criminalization,” he avoided any talk about major prison reductions.

Holder, who alluded to the fact that he expected to be out of office when the summit was scheduled, summarized his efforts to curb Justice Department charges against minor drug dealers and said of the high prison population, “We cannot allow the status quo to persist.”

Obama’s video appearance was not a speech but rather a conversation with ex-Baltimore journalist David Simon, creator of the HBO series “The Wire.” The video produced no dramatic presidential declarations on criminal justice.

More striking was a Simon speech to the summit, in which the former Baltimore Sun police reporter declared that the war on drugs had “wrecked” big-city policing by making officers more interested in racking up overtime by making drug arrests than spending time solving more serious crimes.

Simon discussed the sharp decline in police “clearances” of murders and other violent crime categories over the last two decades.

Indeed, a sub-theme of the summit was that in addition to addressing the difficult issues involved in successful prisoner re-entry into society, reformers should turn their attention to the entire justice system, including the police and prosecutors whose cases result in keeping the prison and jail population high.

Vanita Gupta, the acting Civil Rights Division chief of the U.S. Justice Department, declared that “we are at a moment of unprecedented opportunity” to improve local policing, which could have an impact on reducing the numbers sent to prison.

Former federal prosecutor Paul Butler, now a Georgetown University law professor, complained of a “workplace culture” among prosecutors that prizes a high number of convictions and sentence lengths.

Former New Jersey Attorney General Anne Milgram, now heading the Laura and John Arnold Foundation, said, “We should rethink who we incarcerate and who we detain [pending trial,” including a study of who should be subject to arrest in the first place.

In the end, members of the left-right coalition vowed to keep fighting on justice reform, including trying to make it an issue in next year’s presidential campaign. That would be a departure, because crime hasn’t been a prominent issue for federal candidates since the turn of the century, when Democrat Al Gore’s support of gun control was an ingredient in his close loss to George W. Bush in 2000.

Besides Jones’ organization and a new Coalition for Public Safety that includes conservative and liberal groups that took part in yesterday’s summit, Bernard Kerik, who headed New York City’s police and correction departments at different times before he himself went to prison on a corruption charge, announced yesterday that he would start the American Coalition for Criminal Justice reform to campaign against mass incarceration.

Ted Gest is president of Criminal Justice Journalists and Washington bureau chief of The Crime Report. He welcomes comments from readers.

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