Van Jones: America locks up far too many of its citizens, and there's a bipartisan effort to change that
He says President Obama, the Koch brothers, Newt Gingrich, Cory Booker and others agree on it
Editor’s Note: Van Jones is president of Dream Corps and Rebuild The Dream, which promote innovative solutions for America’s economy. He was President Barack Obama’s green jobs adviser in 2009. A best-selling author, he is also founder of Green for All, a national organization working to build a green economy. Follow him on Twitter @VanJones68. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely his.
In Washington, we are seeing the re-emergence this year of a phenomenon that many Americans were afraid had gone extinct: real live no-joke bipartisanship.
Heavyweights from both parties are attending the March 26 Bipartisan Summit on Criminal Justice Reform. The event is co-produced by Gingrich Productions (on the right) and by my project, #cut50 – an initiative that aims to safely halve the number of people behind bars within 10 years.
Attorney General Eric Holder will be speaking. So will Newt Gingrich, the Republican former House speaker. Sen. Cory Booker, D-New Jersey, will be there. So will Democratic strategist and CNN commentator Donna Brazile, a co-host of the summit.
Republican power players like former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, Ohio Gov. John Kasich and Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, will address the gathering by video.
So will President Obama.
Progressives like myself will rub shoulders with representatives from Koch Industries.
Everyone keeps asking me, “How is this possible?”
I have five words for you: “Liberty and justice for all.”
The ever-expanding incarceration industry has begun to violate some of the deepest and most sacred principles of BOTH major political parties.
Therefore, conservatives, libertarians and liberals have their own objective interests in reform – and their own values-based incentives to make real changes.
For example, the right takes very seriously the concept of “liberty.” Conservatives and libertarians want to defend the rights of every individual to pursue his or her dreams. They favor limited government. They hate massive, failed, bloated government bureaucracies that suck up more and more money and get more and more power, no matter how badly they perform.
In America today, we have 5% of the world’s population – but we have nearly 25% of the world’s incarcerated people. Nearly 1 in 100 American adults is behind bars. One out of every four people locked up anywhere in the world is caged in America’s prisons and jails.
And most people come out more damaged, more hopeless and less able to thrive than when they went in. (So much for “corrections”!)
That’s the opposite of limited government – and liberty.
On the other hand, progressives like me care passionately about the “justice for all” part – including racial justice and social justice. We are incensed by a system that locks up the poor and racial minorities in numbers that are massive – and massively disproportionate. We oppose a system that forever tars people as “felons,” deemed permanently unfit for employment or the right to vote, possibly because of one mistake, early in life.
When any system violates the principles of both “liberty” AND “justice,” Americans of all stripes should stand together to change it.
That is exactly what is starting to happen. This year, we are seeing the birth of an honest-to-goodness “Liberty and Justice for All” coalition.
Still struggling to believe me? I was on “Anderson Cooper 360” on Monday night to discuss the movement for criminal justice reform.
Here is a quote:
“A lot of kids I grew up with, grammar school, middle school, high school, were in prison. They were the poor kids and they had drug addictions. They had drug problems, they didn’t have any money, they got caught, and they got caught in the poverty cycle, and they are at the bottom of society and they can’t get out of it. … People with drug problems, people who have mental illnesses, they probably shouldn’t be in the criminal justice system. And people who make mistakes, let’s not write them off forever, let’s give them a chance to reintegrate and reenter society.”
There is just one catch: I’m not the one who said that. That is a direct quote from Mark Holden, senior vice president of Koch Industries.
On practically every other issue, the Koch brothers and I are still fierce opponents. I doubt if we will ever agree on tax policy, campaign finance reform, environmental rules or the Keystone Pipeline, to name a few. But on criminal justice reform, it’s different.
Mark speaks eloquently about the way the criminal justice system violates the Bill of Rights and criminalizes behaviors that should not result in prison terms.
And he is not alone, on the right.
Fiscal conservatives decry the money wasted on a system that is too expensive and produces poor results. That’s one reason that red-state governors, like Georgia’s Nathan Deal, have acted boldly. Leaders with roots on the religious right, including summit co-host Pat Nolan, insist on the Christian value of redemption and second chances for those behind bars.
Our values may not always be identical, but they can find common expression in fixing this broken prison system. Progressives and conservatives don’t have to trust each other – or even like each other – to vote together on this issue.
Usually, “bipartisanship” is just another word for cheap, political gamesmanship. It is too often invoked by one side, simply to gain advantage and to cloak a more narrow set of interests.
But on criminal justice reform, something different is happening. Criminal justice reform is the one place where many Republicans, Democrats and Libertarians actually agree – and are willing to work together to get something done.
Over the last 30 years, both parties helped lead us down the path to mass incarceration. It will take both political parties to reverse course.
Perhaps the March 26 Bipartisan Summit will represent the first major bend in the road back toward sanity.