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.