In the highly partisan environment of Washington, DC, there is precious little on which policy makers and influencers on both sides of the political divide can agree. The subject of criminal justice reform, however, appears to be one of the few where Republicans and Democrats are willing to work together to enact meaningful change.
At a recent gathering on Capitol Hill, a very diverse panel discussed ways to improve the criminal justice system, and found themselves largely in agreement as to what the problems are, and what steps can be taken to make positive change.
“I think we have been talking past each other for a long time,” said former Obama administration official and liberal commentator Van Jones. “I think we have missed opportunity after opportunity for a long time and that’s why you have a 595 percent growth in the federal budget for incarceration when probably both sides know there are better and smarter ways to get where we are going.”
Jones joined Mark Holden, general counsel for Koch Industries and occasional spokesman for conservative philanthropists Charles and David Koch, in urging Congress to take steps to reduce prison populations. Holden has been particularly active in pursuing such reforms, having published a lengthy essay on overcriminalization for Politico Magazine earlier in the month.
“Since [the Politico article],” Holden said, “we have seen so many letters, emails, calls from people around the country—and it’s across the spectrum—doctors, defense lawyers, public defenders, public officials, educators, hourly workers, law enforcement, inmates, prison officials, former prisoners, former prison officials, young, old , urban, rural—all agreeing, telling horror stories about them and their family. … Everybody has a story here. … This is something that we can all work on. That’s what’s such a great thing. We think we have a great opportunity to improve our criminal justice system and to improve society for all Americans.”
The panel included both Republican and Democratic members of Congress who have proposed justice reform legislation. Senators Rob Portman (R-OH) and Al Franken (D-MN) addressed a bill they have reintroduced to ensure better mental health care to prisoners, and Representative Jim Sensenbrenner (R-WI) discussed his proposal that every federal law that carries the punishment of incarceration be reviewed to determine if imprisonment is the most effective and efficient practice.
Former Justice Fellowship president Pat Nolan also participated in the panel discussion. Nolan began his remarks by praising his former boss, Prison Fellowship founder Chuck Colson:
I attribute [my success in working for prison reform] to Chuck Colson. He had the vision. He could have gone out and practiced law, but instead dedicated the rest of his life to calling attention to the fact of the injustice in our system and the dehumanization of inmates. He offered hope to inmates and established Prison Fellowship for that.