A summit on mass incarceration is bringing together odd bedfellows from across the political spectrum on Thursday — for what organizers hope will be a "bipartisan breakthrough of massive proportions" that will make criminal justice reform a priority for policymakers at the federal level.
Organizers and speakers include as varied a bunch imaginable in Washington, ranging from Democratic Senator Cory Booker to former Republican Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, as well as Koch Industries representatives and leading civil rights organizations. Attorney General Eric Holder, Orange is the New Black author Piper Kerman, and David Simon, the creator of The Wire, are also among the guest list.
"This thing has turned into Woodstock for criminal justice," Van Jones, a civil rights activist and the event's main organizer, said in a call with reporters ahead of the event. "People are gonna look at photographs of this and swear it was photoshopped."
Jones thought about launching the effort with Gingrich, with whom he co-hosted a show on CNN. "We didn't agree on anything — except criminal justice reform," he said.
The movement for prison reform has gained momentum over the last several years, largely thanks to the effort of liberal advocates — but more conservative lawmakers, especially at the state level, have also jumped on board to push changes to a system that incarcerates one in 100 Americans and costs taxpayers billions every year.
"What we are doing right now in criminal justice violates the core principles of both political parties," said Jones. "The right is very concerned about individual liberty and limited government; on the left we talk a lot about racial and social justice."
While the motivations bringing them to the table vary, many political and business leaders of opposing ideologies and party lines seem to agree the status quo is both unjust and untenable.
"We're involved in this because we believe in the rule of law, we believe in the power of the individual, individual liberties and the rights and dignity of human beings," Mark Holden, general counsel and vice president of Koch Industries, said on the call. "At the end of the day I think whether you're a social conservative, a social liberal, a fiscal conservative, or a libertarian, it doesn't really matter… What we hope to do is reform the system to make it more just."
"Right now we're using the criminal justice system for things it wasn't designed to do," he added, recalling his time working as a prison guard while in college. "What we're trying to do is make us more sane and humane, follow the bill of rights, honor the dignity of individuals and the rights they have."
Statistics on mass incarceration in the US have become household knowledge in recent years — like the fact that America accounts for 5 percent of the world's population but 25 percent of the world's prisoners.
"That's way out of line," said Jones, who runs the nonprofit #cut50, which aims to reduce the US prison population by 50 percent in the next 10 years. That's not the goal of everyone attending Thursday's summit, Jones clarified — but organizers are looking for common ground.
"This is a great opportunity to start a bipartisan dialogue, picking up on the terrific progress that's been done on the state level," said Gingrich. "We're understanding the need for criminal justice reform in a way that makes us safer, helps Americans reenter life when they've made a mistake, and is actually better for the taxpayers."
"It's a triple win opportunity," he added.
Prison reform advocates have welcomed the bipartisan effort — which is meant to explore points of agreement that can be drafted into legislation and translated into policy. The summit is expected to address a number of issues relating to mass incarceration: from pretrial justice to reentry to harsh sentencing of young, non-violent, and low-level drug offenders.
But some of the issues — and particularly the war on drugs — remain divisive.
"I am looking at this summit as an opportunity for us to sit down together, eyeball to eyeball, and to start exploring just exactly where all the points of agreement are, as well as the points of disagreement," Alison Holcomb, national director of the ACLU campaign to end mass incarceration, told VICE News. "I'm optimistic, but I'm also realistic that there will be some challenges. My hope is that we come away with some agreement to keep the conversation going."
Decriminalization of drugs is a priority, she added.
"I really want to explore the extent to which partners on the conservative end of the spectrum will agree with those on the more liberal end that drug use is a public health issue and it doesn't make sense to put drug addicts in jail," she said, noting that a majority of the public supports reform.
But translating the effort into bills may also be challenging.
"Among Democrats as well as Republicans there are those that are ready to move forward with criminal justice reform and those that are hanging back," said Holcomb, adding that lawmakers are divided into "those who are worried about the political risk of appearing 'soft on crime' and those who are just punitive, that really somehow believe that continuing to round people up and put them in jail is going to make our communities safe."
The deep racial bias of the US criminal justice system is also an issue not everyone is willing to acknowledge and tackle head-on — a bias most evident when it comes to the war on drugs, which sweeps up mostly people of color and the poor.
"We all know that if you're too poor to have a great lawyer to navigate you through the criminal justice system, you're gonna be in a world of hurt," said Jones. "And god help you if you are the wrong color, because at every stage of the system the numbers show that people of color get treated worst."
Doing what it takes to change that can be politically unpopular, but Holcomb said the disparities are obvious.
"The war on drugs is the one place where we see the racial disparities unquestionably, because we know that white Americans are using and selling drugs at slightly higher rates than people of color and yet that people of color are the ones that are going to jail" said Holcomb. "America hasn't dealt with its history of racial oppression; we are gonna need to figure out how to come to terms with that in order to identify a path forward that gets not only at the question of who's getting scooped up in the criminal justice system but how crime plays out in America, how it's tied to poverty, and how it's tied to the systemic injustices that remain."
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