The Great Purple Issue Of Criminal Justice Reform

Lanny Davis Former Special Counsel to President Bill Clinton
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What do Hillary Clinton, Rand Paul, Cory Booker, Tim Scott, Elijah Cummings, Rick Perry, Newt Gingrich, Van Jones, John Kasich, Bob Goodlatte, Koch Industries and the Tea Party-aligned group FreedomWorks have in common?

They all agree on the need for fundamental reforms to the nation’s criminal justice system, with a focus on reducing the prison population of minorities, especially among young people of color in the inner city imprisoned at a young age for victimless crimes.

On Wednesday of last week, Clinton spoke at Columbia University in the wake of the horrible tragedy that was the death of Freddie Gray in Baltimore. It was described by Jonathan Allen of Vox as “one of the most important speeches of her career.”

She pointed to a USA Today article comparing the life expectancy of two Baltimore neighborhoods just six miles apart. Inhabitants of the more affluent, whiter neighborhood live an average of 20 years longer than inhabitants of the impoverished, blacker neighborhood.

And she spoke in the moral “right vs. wrong” language reminiscent of the late senator from New York whose seat she went on to fill 32 years later, Robert F. Kennedy. You could almost hear the voice of RFK in 1968 during his presidential campaign confronting the blight of poverty and injustice in America, repeating the words again and again, “it is unacceptable.”

“There is something profoundly wrong when African-American men are still far more likely to be stopped and searched by police, charged with crimes and sentenced to longer prison terms than are meted out to their white counterparts,” she said. “There is something wrong when a third of all black men face prison during their lifetimes. And an estimated 1.5 million black men are ‘missing’ from their families because of incarceration and premature death.”

Her reform proposals included body cameras for all police departments and measures to reduce prison sentences and incarceration options for low-level offenses and victimless crimes. They reflect similar bipartisan criminal justice reform measures enacted under the leadership of Kasich, Ohio’s Republican governor.

They reflect many similar bipartisan congressional measures in both chambers of Congress, such as one in the Senate aimed at enabling young people to remove arrest records under certain circumstances, sponsored by Paul (R-Ky.) and Booker (D-N.J.) — a move that would help avoid the stigma that prevents so many from obtaining jobs when they get out of jail.

They reflect apprenticeship programs for young people to develop skills to obtain and keep dignified jobs, sponsored by Booker and Scott, South Carolina’s Republican senator.

“It’s time to end the era of mass incarceration,” she said. “From Ferguson to Staten Island to Baltimore, the patterns have become unmistakable and undeniable. Let’s take on the broader inequities in our society,” she said. “You can’t separate out the unrest we see in the streets from the cycles of poverty and despair that hollow out those neighborhoods.”

In a remarkable Washington Post interview in June 2014, Paul pulled no punches in pointing to race as a factor in the disproportionate numbers of young people of color who populate our nation’s prisons.

“I mean, three out of four people in prison for drugs are black or brown,” he said. “Nobody sort of wrote that policy down, but it’s related either to poverty or ease of conviction … white kids use drugs just as much as black and brown kids, but white kids aren’t going to jail at nearly the rate.”

“And you think,” he continued, “I’m a police chief, you might think, where’s it easiest to wreck people, where they’re all standing outside smoking pot or doing whatever, or where they’re in the suburbs in grandmother’s million dollar house in the basement smoking pot? It just inevitably has led to more poor kids being arrested.”

We are divided in so many ways. Our politics seem to thrive on bile and personal attacks. Now even the mainstream media feels free to publish headlines about politicians in both parties that challenge their honesty and character with innuendo as surrogates for hard facts and proofs.

But here, finally, we have one issue that has become truly purple, that has brought us together — red states and blue states, liberals and conservatives. All want to break the cycle of poverty and race inequality and halt what Clinton called our “era of mass incarceration.”

This isn’t idealism or wishful thinking. It’s happening. Let’s recognize it — celebrate it — and then do the hard work to help our imprisoned people of color become productive citizens who make us proud, not who make us fear.

Lanny Davis served as special counsel to former President Clinton and is principal in the Washington, D.C. law firm of Lanny J. Davis & Associates, and is Executive Vice President of the strategic communications firm, LEVICK. He is the author of a recently published book, Crisis Tales: Five Rules for Coping with Crises in Business, Politics, and Life (Threshold Editions/Simon and Schuster).