An overhaul of U.S. criminal justice laws looks increasingly possible, and the 2016 presidential campaign just might give the effort a shot in the arm, says Sen. Cory Booker, D-New Jersey.
The issue was the focus of Thursday’s Bipartisan Summit for Criminal Justice Reform. The event was sponsored by groups that make odd bedfellows – from the left-leaning American Civil Liberties Union to the conservative Koch Industries.
Booker and former GOP House Speaker Newt Gingrich were among the headliners for the day-long summit, intended to build momentum behind a host of reforms that so far haven’t gotten much traction in Congress.
Also there: Big crime-drama names like David Simon, who wrote HBO’s “The Wire,” and Piper Kerman, the inspiration behind Netflix’ “Orange is the New Black.”
The White House released a video of Simon and President Barack Obama discussing the criminal justice system and “The Wire’s” depiction of the issues contributing to high rates of incarceration. In it, Obama emphasized the need to “humanize” both criminals and police, to create a better dialogue on criminal justice reform.
“In the same way you’ve got to be able to humanize those involved in the drug trade, we have to remind ourselves that the police — they’ve got a scary, tough, difficult job and if the rest of society is saying, ‘Just go deal with this, and we don’t want to hear about it … just keep it out of our sight lines, and it’s not our problem,’ we’re betraying them as well,” he said.
But he expressed confidence the current interest in criminal justice reform would at least produce a “more productive way of thinking” about the problems.
Booker, a New Jersey Democrat, said at the summit that there were still challenges in enacting real reforms.
“There is a lot of good legislation and a lot of good energy, but I’m telling you there is tremendous work to do to get those bills out of committee and onto the floor,” Booker said.
Though void of any likely 2016 aspirants, Booker said reform supporters such as Sens. Ted Cruz and Rand Paul will help raise the issue’s profile.
Booker said each of them have backed key measures that are pieces of the broader push to overhaul a system that he said leaves people facing far-too-long “mandatory minimum” sentences for non-violent offenses, and then imposes more burdens upon their re-entry to society.
“The reality is what has made this issue have so much more strength in force has really been the courage of Republican leaders around the country to step up and step out,” Booker said, crediting libertarian super-donors the Koch brothers, anti-tax leader Grover Norquist as well as other fiscal and religious conservatives.
Booker and Paul last year introduced the REDEEM Act, which would divert child offenders from the criminal justice system, automatically seal or expunge their records in some cases, and prohibit child offenders from being kept in solitary confinement.
“There is a growing consensus across the political spectrum that our criminal justice system is in need of reform,” said House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R, Virginia. “The issue of over-criminalization is an issue of liberty. We must work together to improve our criminal justice system so that it works fairly and efficiently and reduces crime across the United States.”
The conference comes amid a new focus on criminal justice issues after the Ferguson, Missouri, police shooting of Michael Brown. Attorney General Eric Holder, who has made improving relations between law enforcements and communities a focus at the end of his tenure, called for also reforms in a speech Thursday.
Van Jones, the former Obama administration aide who co-hosted Thursday’s summit with Gingrich, Democratic operative Donna Brazile and Pat Nolan, the head of the American Conservative Union’s Center for Criminal Justice Reform, predicted the event would be a “bipartisan breakthrough.”
“When you have an idea whose time has come, it winds up being an unstoppable force,” Jones said. “It’s very hard for these kinds of moments to not have an impact.”
CNN’s Alex Jaffe contributed to this report.