Unity Matters, Especially for Criminal Justice Reform

“To bring about such a transformation, we must all set aside partisan politics and collaborate on solutions.”—Charles G. Koch, Politico, 1/7/15

Last week, President Barack Obama commuted the sentences of 46 prison inmates serving time for nonviolent drug crimes and became the first sitting president to visit a federal prison. These actions coincided with President Obama’s call for criminal justice reform, delivered in a speech at the NAACP national convention in Philadelphia that commended the work of some “unlikely bedfellows”:

“You’ve got Van Jones and Newt Gingrich. You’ve got Americans for Tax Reform and the ACLU. You’ve got the NAACP and the Koch brothers.”

President Obama’s reference to this broad group signifies a growing united voice for reforming harmful policies in the criminal justice realm. Although the call for reform may have created some unusual allies, the negative implications of laws enacted during the “tough on crime” wave of the 1980s and ʼ90s hardly make such collaboration surprising. In 2013, federal prisons held roughly 215,000 inmates, up from 24,000 in 1980 and leaving such institutions at 39 percent past maximum capacity. At the federal level, more than half of those incarcerated are serving time for drug crimes.

Vikrant P. Reddy, Senior Research Fellow at the Charles Koch Institute, argues the current situations created by outdated mandatory sentencing give the need for reform a sense of urgency.

“Reforming America’s sentencing laws is a priority for three reasons: public safety, costs, and human dignity. The public safety case is increasingly obvious – low-level, non-violent offenders often enter prison and then come out worse than they started, with diminished skills and limited job prospects. This makes them far more likely to end up right back in prison again. The cost issue is also obvious: in some states, prison is almost twenty times as costly as probation—and yet gets worse results. Dignity is especially important: too many of our fellow Americans are wasting away in cages for minor crimes.”—Vikrant P. Reddy, Senior Research Fellow

While change often requires an increasingly rare display of bipartisanship, the fact that a well-established consensus exists around criminal justice illustrates the issue’s importance, and impact, for Americans.

Simply put: Partisan is a label, dignity is not.

What’s most striking about the push for criminal justice reform—as well as most refreshing and optimistic—is that in contrast with other ventures into changing longstanding policy, the growing choruses of united voices reaffirm that at its most basic level, such reform is about human dignity, and ensuring that an individual’s well-being isn’t lost in the system. What bipartisan support for criminal justice reform does, then, is place an honest emphasis on how our justice system affects the individual, rather than reducing a person into just another number.

The Charles Koch institute remains a committed voice in the criminal justice reform movement, spearheading discussions around the nation, from Ohio to Texas to Florida. This November, we’ll bring together a larger effort, holding Advancing Justice, a summit in New Orleans,  to help identify the next set of priorities, and to support a broad coalition that can help address barriers to further progress.

In the words of Reddy: “Sentencing reform is critical, but it is just one piece of a broader criminal justice reform agenda that would involve reforming law enforcement practices such as civil asset forfeiture, helping ex-offenders successfully re-enter society, and reversing a tide of overcriminalization that has turned thousands of ordinary daily activities into criminal acts.”

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