In a Washington that seems incorrigibly paralyzed by partisan acrimony, the coming together of conservative and liberal activists in the cause of criminal justice reform has, at least, novelty value. The Koch brothers, stock villains of all right-thinking liberals, joining forces with such conservative betes noires as the ACLU and the Center for American Progress? The Tea Party-leaning FreedomWorks cozying up to the civil rights stalwarts of the Leadership Conference? The alliance announced Thursday is inevitably material for strange-bedfellow headlines. “Look, is that a pig in the sky?” marveled my colleague Andrew Cohen in our morning newsletter.
This convergence, shrewdly branded as the Coalition for Public Safety, is real, and it matters. The right’s embrace of justice reform is important in its own right, and because it gives cover to liberals who fear being pilloried as soft-on-crime naifs. Much of America’s overincarceration problem was spurred by liberals — Bill Clinton, Joe Biden, Ted Kennedy — out to prove their manhood.
But a little context: This is not an overnight sensation, it is a moment many years in the making. It is not just (though it is partly) about fiscal conservatives wanting to cut government spending. And it is not assured of success.
(Full disclosure: three of the four foundations supporting the new coalition are also donors to The Marshall Project.)
The roots of what is now a broad conservative movement for justice reforms run back to Charles Colson, the Nixon aide imprisoned in 1974 for Watergate crimes. Colson’s passion was to spread Christianity among the incarcerated. The legion of missionaries he built to disseminate the gospel morphed into a grassroots lobby on issues like reducing prison rape.
There is still a conscience-driven contingent in the movement, arguing that the way we treat criminals is an affront to human dignity and family values. But the cause has picked up adherents from several other subsets of the right. Former Texas Governor Rick Perry — inspired by the free-market-oriented Texas Public Policy Foundation — made reform a good-government-is-less-government issue nearly a decade ago, and showed that you can bring down prison populations AND the crime rate. Grover Norquist of Americans for Tax Reform, whose professed goal is to shrink government until it can be drowned in a bathtub, has been a criminal justice reformer since it hit him that police and prison guards should not be exempt from his distaste for government bureaucrats. Newt Gingrich, the former House Speaker and presidential candidate, was also early to the subject, framing the failure of our “corrections” system to correct as a public safety issue. Rand Paul and other libertarians see the justice system as another manifestation of overbearing, invasive government.
There is much the transpartisan allies will never agree on. Some on the left believe the only answer is massive government investment to lift up the communities that are the main sources (and the main victims) of mass incarceration. Conservatives are far less enthusiastic about paying for good intentions; they also tend to favor outsourcing justice to private companies. The coalition, I’m pretty sure, will avoid the subject of guns. (Grover Norquist’s personal answer to crime is to issue concealed-carry permits for all Americans.) They will tiptoe around the subject of race, although many liberals see today’s mass incarceration as the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow. The question of the death penalty divides the right, and so is off the table. Nobody wants to grapple with the draconian treatment of sex offenders.
The coalition has met exactly once and is understandably coy about specifics. But the potential common ground is substantial. To reduce the flow into prisons and jails, most members of the alliance favor easing mandatory minimum sentences, especially for non-violent drug offenders; smarter use of probation (including monitoring technology); and diverting the mentally ill and addicted to treatment programs rather than jails. To get more people out of prisons — and safely reintegrated — they favor letting inmates earn earlier release by completing job training and drug rehab programs. To ease reentry and reduce recidivism, they favor using risk-assessment formulas to rank parole candidates according to their likelihood of offending again, and making it easier for ex-felons to seal their records and obtain access to jobs and schools. Pretty much everybody wants to curb the power of law enforcement to seize assets — a reform with an influential white-collar backing. And there is broad interest in reforming the way the system treats juveniles — criminalizing offenses like truancy, trying teenagers as adults, and putting them in solitary confinement.
This is not a slam dunk. On both left and right there are activists uncomfortable consorting with the enemy. It is far from clear that their constituencies will follow them into battle. The public’s fear of crime may have abated since the ‘90’s but it has not disappeared, and politicians’ fear of the public is undiminished. There is resistance to some reforms from both law-and-order conservatives (notably Senator Chuck Grassley, chairman of the Judiciary Committee) and law-and-order liberals (Senator Charles Schumer, for one.)
The coalition has a powerful yearning to pass something — to “get points on the board,” as Anthony Romero of the ACLU put it at the coalition’s debut press conference — and thus to gain momentum. There is risk in that eagerness, not that Congress will fail to act, but that it will pass another in a line of measures that have been neutered along the way, then declare victory and move on to something else. As much as the country and the criminal justice system cry out for compromise, the test of this alliance will be whether it knows when it has compromised enough.