Justice Reformers Warned of “Brief Window” to Make Meaningful Change

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Photo by Michael Coghlan via Flickr

Reformers have a “relatively brief window” of time to build consensus for meaningful change in the U.S. justice system, says a former top Justice Department official.

Speaking at the launch Tuesday of the Council on Criminal Justice, a think tank and advocacy group, Laurie Robinson said the country had reached a “singular” moment in the public’s willingness to reverse long-held notions about crime and punishment.

“It’s rare for the public to be as focused on criminal justice issues as they are today,” Robinson, a former assistant attorney general in charge of the Office of Justice Programs, said during a webinar called to introduce the board and trustees of the new Atlanta-based nonprofit.

But “we may have a relatively brief window to build a consensus for change,” added Robinson, who co-chairs the group’s board.

The Council represents the most significant attempt in decades to bring influential conservatives and liberals together in a bipartisan effort to support policymakers with change-making research and policy ideas.

Criminal justice reform is neither a Democratic nor Republican issue, said Republican Sen. Mike Lee of Utah, but an “American issue.”

“It has a lot to do with freedom, and (ensuring) the federal government respects the liberty of human beings.”

Mark Holden

Mark Holden. TCR photo

Mark Holden of Koch Industries, co-chair, said both right and left had already proved they could work together successfully in ensuring passage of the federal First Step Act  late last year.

“But there’s so much more to do,” Holden said, noting that only further bipartisan efforts could bring about serious changes in areas ranging from court reform to prisoner reentry.

The Council was a means of reinforcing efforts to “change the dynamic of the criminal justice system,” he said.

Adam Gelb, who headed the Pew Charitable Trusts’ Public Safety Performance Project before leaving to found the Council, described the organization as both a think tank and a forum for advocacy at both the federal and state levels.

The Council would not try to duplicate existing research or the efforts of other justice think tanks, but would develop and promote policy options through task forces and panels, bringing together leading criminal justice thinkers, he said.

Echoing other comments that the country had reached an important moment for considering genuine reforms of the system, Gelb said the Council was determined to make sure it was more than “just a moment.”

DeRay Mckesson, of Campaign Zero, a leading activist involved in the establishment of Black Lives Matter and a trustee of the group, said generating political support was crucial.

DeRay McKesson

DeRay Mckesson

“We have the data to change people’s lives, but we don’t always have the will,” he said.

Another co-chair, former acting Attorney General Sally Yates, said the group’s leadership had come together in an effort to build a consensus for “pragmatic solutions.”

“How we administer justice is a core defining element of who we are as a people,” she declared.

Left unsaid, however, was the impact of current White House policy. Although President Donald Trump and Attorney General William Barr have supported key parts of the justice reform agenda—most notably the First Step Act—administration rhetoric has amplified the “tough on crime” approaches of the past.

And as a hotly fought election campaign approaches, the likelihood of further emotional appeals for harsh punishment could build resistance to further reforms.

Although the U.S. justice system is highly decentralized—administered by states, counties and municipalities with widely different priorities and levels of funding—changes at the federal level are critical, said former California Gov. Jerry Brown, another Council trustee.

“States are not isolated,” Brown said, noting that governors and legislators are sensitive to the “ethos” emerging across the country on criminal justice and respond accordingly.

“If we’re bold and incisive” at the federal level, bolstered by the support of national policymakers and thought leaders, local politicians will be emboldened to make changes they otherwise would not consider, he said.

The Council first major effort will be a “federal priorities task force” headed by former Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal. The task force held its inaugural meeting July 15. On July 31, the Council will sponsor a panel discussion in Washington on Thomas Abt’s new book about violence prevention.

The Council’s initial funding includes support from Arnold Ventures, the Ford Foundation, the H.F. Guggenheim Foundation, HBO, the Joyce Foundations, New York Community Trust, and the Malcolm Hewitt Wiener Foundation.

Gelb has set a five-year goal of raising $25 million.

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