There was an awkward moment midway through Thursday’s Bipartisan Summit on Criminal Justice Reform, out in the hall of a vast Washington hotel. Van Jones, the liberal activist and former Obama adviser, stood shoulder to shoulder with Mark Holden, the general council for Koch Industries; Matt Kibbe, CEO of aTea Party–aligned FreedomWorks; and former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, who is now part of the Right on Crime campaign. They were discussing the rare left-right coalition that has assembled around the problem of mass incarceration, and whether it might spark congressional action.
“This is fundamentally different than immigration reform,” Gingrich said, after a reporter brought up the failure of that recent, briefly bipartisan effort. “There’s a much, much bigger consensus—more like welfare reform.”
It was a bracing reminder that cooperation across the aisle is only as good as the policies it produces. Mass incarceration, after all, was a thoroughly bipartisan project. Richard Nixon started the War on Drugs, but the 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act—“one of the broadest expansions of the criminal-justice system in national history,” as Michael Ames describes it—was written by Joe Biden, then the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, and signed by Bill Clinton.
Many reformers on the left are optimistic that this time the bipartisan consensus will tilt in a progressive direction. “Obviously I was not in favor of welfare reform…but I think [Gingrich] is right in terms of it having hit a tipping point,” Van Jones told me later. “Not the substance, but the dynamics are very similar. You have an idea that started out only on the right and eventually won over a critical majority on the left with welfare reform. Here you have an idea that really started out as a concern of the left and it’s now got a critical mass on the right, and because of that, you can probably pass something this year.”
That seems to be the most specific goal shared by the various factions assembled at the summit: to pass some kind of reform legislation in the small window before the 2016 elections. There are a number of piecemeal bills on the table, including the Smarter Sentencing Act to reduce mandatory minimums for nonviolent offenders; the REDEEM Act, which would give people with criminal records an avenue to sealing those records and lift the ban on public assistance for people with felony drug convictions; a proposal to provide resources and alternatives to incarceration for mentally ill offenders; and a more moderate sentencing-reduction proposal that would allow some prisoners to get time off for participating in job training, drug counseling and other “recidivism reduction” programs.