A New Campaign for Fair Sentencing and “Fair Chances”


A conservative-liberal coalition today announced details of a campaign to overhaul the nation’s sentencing system, reduce incarceration, and provide “fair chances” for released prisoners returning home.

The plan was outlined by leaders of the Coalition for Public Safety, which calls itself “the nation’s largest bipartisan criminal justice reform organization.”

Some key points of the drive include reducing the length of mandatory minimum sentences in both federal and state prisons, cutting recidivism rates, expanding substance abuse treatment in prisons and jails, and “banning the box” to end automatic or categorical disqualifications for jobs based on applicants’ criminal records.

The coalition said that 2.3 million adults are incarcerated in prisons and jails around the U.S., and nearly 12 million people pass through jails every year. The group contended that nearly half of state prison inmates are serving time for non-violent offenses. “American taxpayers spend $80 billion each year for jails and prisons to keep this bloated and inefficient system afloat,” the organization said.

The extensive plan is notable because it takes a broad look at sentencing and prisoner issues along a wide spectrum of ideological views, including traditionally liberal ideas like reducing life without parole sentences and conservative planks such as reducing “over-criminalization” of federal laws.

However, the blueprint is limited to issues of sentencing and “fair opportunities” for former inmates, not dealing with other major parts of the criminal justice system such as policing and court proceedings.

Christine Leonard, executive director of the coalition, told a conference call to discuss the campaign that the group’s agreement on a “baseline” set of goals was “remarkable.” Leonard declined to detail the specific strategies that the coalition would pursue to achieve its goals, saying that “we are just getting started” and still is seeking the support of other organizations and individuals.

A statement outlining what the coalition supports cited the proposed federal Smarter Sentencing Act, which would reduce some mandatory minimum penalties in drug cases. The Congressional Budget Office has estimated a $4 billion saving over nine years if the proposal became law.

Grover Norquist, a well-known conservative activist who is a leader of the effort, urged a review of “what has been working and what has not been working” in criminal justice so that tax dollars could be saved and public safety preserved.

Among the coalition’s backers are the conservative Right on Crime Together organization, FreedomWorks, and Americans for Tax Reform as well as the liberal Center for American Progress and the American Civil Liberties Union. Funders include Laura and John Arnold, Koch Industries, Inc., the Ford Foundation, and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

At the same time that the coalition announced its plan, one of its members, the American Civil Liberties Union, told the Washington Post that it soon will sponsor ballot initiatives in three states with high incarceration rates that aim to force sentencing reform. “This is not a reform effort focused on the Northeast liberal corridor,” said ACLU executive director Anthony Romero. “We're going to the tough states, the Deep South.”

The “baseline” plan announced today was divided into goals for the federal system and for state criminal justice.

Among other provisions in the federal plan were to expand use of alternatives to incarceration, such as community supervision and residential re-entry centers, and expanding the use of early release programs, such as for elderly and terminally ill inmates.

State goals included such items as reducing incarceration resulting from failure to pay fines and fees and limiting the use of jail or prison for “technical violations” of probation and parole.

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