On Saturday, July 9th, a symposium on criminal justice reform was held at the Antonin Scalia Law School at George Mason University. The event, which received funding from The Charles Koch Foundation and sponsorship by The Fund for American Studies, featured members from organizations who have been integral in the fight for conservative criminal justice reform, including Right on Crime, Families Against Mandatory Minimums, Prison Fellowship, and the Heritage foundation.
“Criminal justice is about people first, people second, and people third,” Jesse Wiese, director of community engagement at Prison Fellowship, told those in attendance. Wiese, who served seven-and-a-half years for robbery before eventually earning a degree in law, spoke on the importance of effective rehabilitation and reentry alongside conservative leader Pat Nolan, Director of the American Conservative Union Foundation’s Center for Criminal Justice Reform.
Discussing the issue of rehabilitation and reentry, Wiese reminded the audience that 95 percent of the incarcerated population will eventually reenter society. Both Nolan and Wiese echoed the theme of human dignity. “Prisoners want to be told that they matter” said Wiese. Nolan, citing his conservative roots, exclaimed that “the most devastating thing is to take away your freedom.”
Nolan and Wiese shared their concerns on issues facing our current system of justice, drawing on their unique personal experiences as former prisoners. When asked about the issue of overcriminalization and rising prison populations, Nolan questioned whether Americans “were really worse than other countries” on committing acts of crime or whether the issue was instead a systemic one. Nolan also reminded the audience of the cultural issues currently plaguing prisons. “You are told you are valueless” said Nolan. He even recalls being told by corrections officers that he would be back one day. Wiese continued Nolan’s point, echoing the lost dignity of incarceration. “We have a prison culture that is antithetical to cultural norms.”
At the end of the symposium, Wiese urged those gathered to reconsider their view of reentering citizens. Should people with a criminal record be viewed as ex-felons or as returning citizens? Should we prevent those with a criminal record from once again achieving good standing? In Wiese’s view, people with a felony record just want to return to a normal, American way of life. For people with a criminal record, this would entail removing barriers to food, housing, and a normal life, which can only be done if we eliminate the second prison once and for all.