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by Nkechi Taifa, Senior Policy Analyst at Open Society Foundations

I have spent over 25 years working on criminal justice reform issues and the recent Bipartisan Summit on Criminal Justice Reform, co-hosted by an unlikely alliance of Van Jones, Newt Gingrich, Donna Brazile and Pat Nolan, was absolutely colossal. Who would have imagined that a huge hotel ballroom would be packed as early as 8:00 a.m. with federal and local legislators, high administration officials, policy experts, criminologists, researchers, faith leaders, academicians, formerly incarcerated people and millennials – all from both sides of the aisle? The event was an ambitious undertaking – a full day jam-packed with featured presentations, panel workshops, video presentations, and luncheon keynote conversations, with U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, Secretary of Labor Tom Perez, and Georgia Governor Nathan Deal all sharing their words of wisdom on criminal justice reform. Democratic Members of Congress spoke at the Summit in person, and Republican Members, along with President Barak Obama, made remarks via video. 

As I sat in the audience, I reflected that criminal justice was no longer the lightening rod it was two decades ago, thanks to a more recent, huge paradigm shift.  Twenty years ago, Republicans and Democrats alike were horrible on criminal justice issues.  Candidate Bill Clinton left the campaign trail to oversee the execution of a mentally challenged man in Arkansas. Every year or so during the early 90s we fought against unwieldy omnibus crime bills, culminating in the “granddaddy” of all the crime bills – the Violent Crime Control and Safe Streets Act of 1994.  This bill expanded the federal death penalty to a level unprecedented in modern times, gutted habeas corpus reform, eviscerated the exclusionary rule, allowed for the prosecutions of 13-year olds as adults, and refused to address the crack/powder sentencing disparity, while implementing a slew of additional mandatory minimum sentences and offering monetary incentives to states to lock up more and more people for longer periods of time in exchange for loads of money to build more prisons. 

Fast-forward twenty years, there is now bipartisan agreement that many of the provisions in that crime bill were a huge mistake.  In 2008 and 2010, progressive groups on the left banded together with conservative groups on the right to achieve federal bipartisan reforms unprecedented at the time - passage of the Second Chance reentry legislation in 2008 and passage of the Fair Sentencing Act, which reduced the disparity in penalty between crack and powder cocaine, in 2010.

I was not only an observer but also a panelist at the Bipartisan Summit, along with Pat Nolan – director of the American Conservative Union’s Center for Criminal Justice Reform, John Malcolm, director of the Edwin Meese Center at the Heritage Foundation, Nicole Austin-Hillery of the Brennan Center for Justice and Julie Stewart of Families Against Mandatory Minimums.  Our topic was “The Bipartisan Opportunity: Federal Justice and Sentencing Reform.”  We spoke to the need to reduce the number of new prisoners and issue shorter sentences (front-end reforms); releasing prisoners early by transferring them to community corrections and home confinement (back end reforms), and adjusting outdated sentences through presidential clemency. 

My concluding remarks went further.  I challenged advocates to step out of our comfort zone – that there is now rudimentary political cover to go beyond the low-hanging fruit (i.e. first time, non-violent offenders), and confront the necessary harder issue of reducing sentences for those convicted of violent offenses.  There are far too many people who were convicted of acts of violence in their younger years who are still rotting away in prison in their sixties. If we are serious about a meaningful cut in the federal prison population, it will only happen if we significantly expand reform beyond the easy cases.  Indeed, Senator Cory Booker in his remarks at the Summit stressed that there are far too many crimes designated as violent which should not be.  He received a standing ovation.

The Bipartisan Summit has seized the revolutionary moment and the momentum is moving the needle further towards reform. Stay tuned. 

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