Washington -- Advocates of overhauling federal criminal justice laws to keep nonviolent offenders out of prison acknowledged Thursday that there is a long way to go before Congress acts on their priorities.
"There is tremendous work to do," said U.S. Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), who has made the issue one of his top priorities. "Let's make this one of the top issues in America."
Booker shared the stage with former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) at a bipartisan summit on criminal justice held at a Washington hotel.
The presence of the two ideological opposites was a new demonstration of how the issue has bridged the liberal and conservative and Republican and Democratic divides. Speakers included Mark Holden, senior vice president and general counsel at Koch Industries, whose owners, Charles and David Koch, have spent millions on behalf of Republican candidates; Republican Gov. Nathan Deal of Georgia; former NAACP President Ben Jealous; and Democratic political consultant Donna Brazile.
The issue has something for everyone: It reduces the disproportionate number of blacks in prison, it helps the economy because nonviolent offenders no longer have criminal records that hinders them finding a job, it saves government money because it's cheaper to put someone on probation rather than behind bars, and it gives Americans more freedom.
"This is the bipartisan breakthrough everybody's been waiting for," said Van Jones, who co-hosted the conference with Gingrich, Brazile, and Pat Nolan, the head of the American Conservative Union Foundation's Center for Criminal Justice Reform. Jones resigned as a White House environmental adviser in 2009 after some of his earlier provocative statements surfaced, including one seeming to implicate President George W. Bush in the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Nolan and Gingrich are members of Right on Crime, a conservative advocacy group pushing for overhauling criminal justice laws.
"When you have an idea whose time has come, it winds up being an unstoppable force," Jones said. "It's very hard for these kinds of moments to not have an impact."
President Obama has also embraced the issue, talking about it in his State of the Union address.
"Criminal justice reform could be a way for us to have a more fair criminal justice system," White House spokesman Josh Earnest said at a briefing with reporters from regional newspapers. Reducing prison populations also would "undeniably" have an impact on federal spending, he said.
And there is interest on the part of House Judiciary Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.).
"There is a growing consensus across the political spectrum that our criminal justice system is in need of reform," he told the conference. "The issue of over-criminalization is an issue of liberty. We must work together to improve our criminal justice system so that it works fairly and efficiently and reduces crime across the United States.
Despite the outpouring of bipartisan support, there are a lot of hurdles to jump over, said Booker, who has co-sponsored criminal justice legislation with tea party favorites Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) and Rand Paul (R-Ky.).