Convening Highlights Bipartisan Support for Significant Criminal Justice Reform
February 13, 2014 - Posted by Patrick McNeil
At an event Tuesday co-sponsored by The Leadership Conference Education Fund and the Vera Institute of Justice titled "A Conversation on Criminal Justice: A Call to Action for the Nation," U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, bipartisan members of Congress, and a panel of experts led a discussion on current criminal justice reform opportunities in Congress and strategies for building a sustained national commitment to ending mass incarceration.
Holder, noting that "although our laws and procedures must be continually updated, our commitment to the cause of justice must remain constant," referred to criminal justice reform as "essentially not a partisan issue" and expressed his support for the Smarter Sentencing Act, evidence-based diversion programs, and reducing recidivism rates through re-entry initiatives like restoring voting rights to formerly incarcerated citizens – a point he underscored using The Education Fund's recent re-entry report. He noted that 2.2 million Black citizens – or about one in 13 African-American adults – cannot vote because of restrictive laws; in Florida, Kentucky, and Virginia that ratio climbs to one in five.
In referencing the Smarter Sentencing Act, Sen. Rand Paul, R. Ky., said that mandatory minimums are just "the tip of the iceberg," while Sen. Mike Lee, R. Utah, a lead sponsor of that legislation, shared the story of a time he received a call from President Obama to talk specifically about criminal justice reform. "That day I knew, political ground had shifted, and criminal justice reform was on the table in a very real and very bipartisan way," Lee said.
And according to Rep. Bobby Scott, D. Va., it is much needed. He explained that the United States incarcerates about 700 people per 100,000, which is by far the highest rate in the world.
"We cannot incarcerate our way to keeping the public safe," said Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D. R.I.
To that end, Laura Murphy, director of the ACLU's Washington legislative office, called America's incarceration problem "abysmal" and outlined three solutions: rein in the power of prosecutors, who have too much power; pass the Smarter Sentencing Act without amendments that impose more mandatory minimum sentences; and end our “addiction to incarceration,” which is not making America any healthier, safer, or better. Murphy also connected criminal justice reform to immigration reform, saying, "the two meet up in some very pernicious ways" and noting that the Latino population in federal prisons is skyrocketing.
The Heritage Foundation’s John Malcolm called the Smarter Sentencing Act “a very measured and appropriate response,” saying “we need to be very, very careful about who we incarcerate and how long we sentence them for.”
In addition to Murphy and Malcolm, other panelists included Craig DeRoche, president of Justice Fellowship and Rabbi Aaron Lipskar, executive director of the Aleph Institute. Christine Leonard, director of Vera Institute’s Washington, D.C. office, moderated the panel.