WASHINGTON — Among the headliners at a summit on criminal justice reform in D.C. this week were many of the usual suspects, including a noteworthy lineup of liberal activists and community advocates who have long damned the perils of mass incarceration and the prison industrial complex.
There was former Obama adviser Van Jones, Allison Holcomb of the ACLU, and Neera Tanden, president of the Center for American Progress. There was a host of formerly incarcerated people who spoke of the damage done by long prison terms for petty offenses, and blue-state elected officials like New Jersey Sen. Corey Booker, who said he was pushing for legislation to scale back the decades-long war on drugs, generally thought of as a proxy war on poor whites and minorities.
“These are momentous and complex issues calling for urgent and concrete solutions, and it is abundantly clear that we cannot allow the status quo to persist,” Attorney General Eric Holder told the audience of hundreds who gathered inside a swanky Marriott hotel on Thursday.
As speaker after speaker broke down the virtues of reentry programs, proportionate sentencing and community policing, people nodded their heads, applauded and said “Amen.”
Those reactions weren’t surprising given the choir to which these guests were preaching. But what was significant— perhaps astonishing in Washington where partisan gridlock and bickering remain the hymn of choice— was who was right alongside that choir and Amen-ing with the best of them.
An equally noteworthy roster of red-state Republicans, right-wing conservative Christians and tea-party benefactors joined their progressive counterparts in a rare show of bipartisanship calling for a broad set of criminal justice reforms.
“As conservatives, for years we tended to be critical of other parts of government but turned a blind eye to the excesses of the justice system,” said Pat Nolan of the American Conservative Union Foundation. “But the damage done to families, the damage done to communities, the human costs in addition to the financial costs aren’t worth it.”