Some 500 people gathered in New Orleans today for a meeting aimed at exploring what one of its organizers called a “transideological” approach to criminal justice reform.
The meeting, called “Advancing Justice: An Agenda for Human Dignity and Public Safety,” was sponsored by the Charles Koch Institute, an educational group created by the billionaire who has been one of the country's prominent supporters of ultra-conservative causes.
Will Ruger, the Institute's vice president for research, said the gathering hoped to go beyond simple bipartisanship.
In an interview with The Crime Report, he said “transideological” or “transphilosophical” was a better description of the meeting's approach than bipartisanship.
“We embrace more than two viewpoints,” he said.
Nevertheless, some of the sponsors’ political leanings were evident.
A video aired at the conference opening last night showed a man fishing on a river, while a narrator for the Charles Koch Institute told the audience that most Americans broke an average of three laws a day, often without realizing it—reflecting the arguments of many conservatives that the country's legal system has been “overcriminalized” with too many laws and regulations tying up the judicial system.
The same video, however, focused on the many children with incarcerated parents–among the consequences of the mass incarceration that both conservatives and liberals have pledged to change. Later shots showed smiling young college graduates throwing mortarboards into the air, a nod to the broad consensus that education plays a deep role in breaking the links between poverty, unemployment and the justice system.
The conference has attracted activists and experts across a broad spectrum, ranging from Tom Lynch of the Cato Institute and Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson (former head of the Drug Enforcement Administration) to Julie Stewart of Families Against Mandatory Minimums and Alison Holcomb of the American Civil Liberties Union.
In some cases, loaded terms on nametags revealed political allegiances. “Liberty” seemed favored by conservative groups, while “liberties” was favored by progressives. “Economic freedom” was a typical conservative term, while “economic opportunity” was a liberal one.
Attendees included public defenders, philanthropists, federal judges, prosecutors, academics, prison guards, members of faith-based groups, and former prisoners.
But despite the strange-bedfellow atmosphere of the meeting, nearly everyone in attendance seemed enthusiastic that they might finally see progress for long-stalled causes.
Candy Christophe, 47, a licensed social worker from Re-Entry Solutions, drove four hours from Alexandria, La., because she is interested in helped newly released prisoners get the jobs that they yearn for and the housing that they need.
“I'm here for those people, to see what we can do,” she said.
Ruger, a former political science professor, emphasized that the Institute is nonpartisan. “There are lots of politicians in Washington, but that's not us,” he said.
Instead, he said, the summit was intended to bring together some of the nation's foremost experts in criminal justice to identify the gaps in research, knowledge, capacity or data.
The topics covered in the two-day meeting reflect the top issues on the nation's justice agenda today, including sentencing policies, the future of policing and approaches to prisoner re-entry. There are also sessions scheduled on a “faith-based approach to reform, police “militarization,” and “Protecting the Innocent in an Era of Overcriminalization.”
“Two experts may say, 'I know x and he knows y. But neither of us knows z,'” said Ruger.
The Institute and its sister organization, the Charles Koch Foundation, were early supporters of the Texas Public Policy Foundation, which has led initiatives to close prisons in Texas and spurred a nationwide “Right on Crime” initiative to bring conservatives together on justice reform issues. Last February, the Koch Foundation earmarked $5 million in an effort to bring together organizations on both the left and right to promote criminal justice reform initiatives across the country in what it called a “Coalition for Public Safety.”
“Conservatives correctly insist that government services be evaluated on whether they produce the best possible results at the lowest possible cost, but too often this lens of accountability has not focused as much on public safety policies as other areas of government,” according to the Texas Public Policy Foundation website.
But most of those attending this week's conference seemed to agree that it was well past time to move outside of standard political categories in order to achieve change. And it offered a voice to many whose concerns have often been drowned out in partisan debates over crime and justice.
Beth Davis, 74, traveled from Ohio on behalf of a group of prisoners who received federal life without parole sentences for dealing or cultivating marijuana. She founded Life for Pot in 2008 to draw attention to those serving such offenses, including her brother, a first-time, nonviolent offender who was convicted in 1996.
Ultimately, Davis would like to work toward clemency, though she has no idea how many people are affected by the issue, because of incomplete correctional-system data.
Others came to the summit with more gnarly, philosophical questions.
Angela Hight, 34, of the Civitas Institute, works with crime victims in North Carolina. Over the years, she's seen how some convicted murderers, like the man who cuts her grass, earn a second chance once they take responsibility for what they've done and turn toward a better path.
Yet she also recalled the horror a victim's family felt when they went to their neighborhood grocery and ran into their loved one's murderer, who was free on a prison-permitted leave.
“Where do you find the balance where both the victim and the criminal are rehabilitated?” Hight asked.
Chiante White, 19, a pre-law sophomore at Southern University at New Orleans, hoped the summit would discuss ways to catch people before they go astray, like some of the young men in her graduating class in Winnsboro, La., who dropped out of college and are now incarcerated.
Johnny Taylor, Jr. from the Thurgood Marshall College Fund, which supports the nation's 47 historically black colleges and universities, told the crowd that his schools were serious about criminal-justice reform. Yet afterward in an interview, Taylor recalled how, recently, when a company sent a technician to his house and he asked them two questions, thinking of his 5-year-old daughter. “I asked, 'Are you bonded? Do you do background checks?'” he said.
That concern shouldn't be seen as negating his dedication to justice reform, Taylor said. “But we've got to think through this,” he said. “It's more complicated than we think.”
Katy Reckdahl is a New Orleans-based reporter and a frequent contributor to the New Orleans Advocate, the Hechinger Report and The New York Times, among others. She welcomes comments from readers.