A liberal Democratic governor from Pennsylvania, a conservative Republican from Mississippi, and a libertarian attorney who works for Koch Industries told the National Governors Association over the weekend that political differences can be put aside to accomplish a common goal: criminal justice reform.
CNN commentator Van Jones, co-founder of #cut50, an initiative to reduce the prison population, moderated a Saturday morning panel at the annual winter meeting of governors. Jones worked with the Trump administration to rally support for the First Step Act, which the president signed into law in December. Jones called Republican Gov. Phil Bryant “our secret weapon” in convincing Donald Trump to support the criminal justice reform bill.
Bryant, a former law enforcement officer, credits his bonafides as a conservative for winning the president’s support.
The First Step Act applied only to the federal prison system but there are significantly more prisoners incarcerated by the state prisons than federal prisons. This is why criminal justice reform is on the radar of every governor.
Mississippi passed criminal justice reform in 2014. Since 2014, Mississippi’s prison population has declined by 11 percent, saving the state $46 million, according to the governor. Bryant said the savings should be used to help former prisoners with education and job skills so they do not return to prison.
Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf was a businessman before he entered politics four years ago.
“This is the right thing to do,” Wolf said. “But it’s also the right thing from a fiscal and business point of view.” Wolf views every criminal justice reform effort as a jobs bill that puts people who deserve a second chance back to work.
In Pennsylvania, the case of rapper Meek Mill, who was sent back to jail for a parole violation, focused publicity on the much-criticized parole and probation system. There are currently reform bills in the state legislature.
Common sense things states are doing for returning citizens is to provide them with photo IDs before they leave prison and making sure they are covered by Medicaid.
Mark Holden, general counsel of Koch Industries, owned by the libertarian brothers Charles and David Koch, said that criminal justice reform has been a company priority for a long time. He described the criminal justice system as a “failed big government program.” He called it a “pay-to-play” system where it was better to be rich and guilty than poor and innocent.
Holden believes the country was derailed by the war on drugs. “It’s hard to declare war on an inanimate object,” he told the audience. He said most people who wind up behind bars are poor and may have mental health issues.
One third of people living in the United States have some kind of criminal record, according to Holden. “It doesn’t make sense to reduce the applicant pool by one-third,” he said.
He credits Texas with starting the modern criminal justice reform movement by being “smart on crime, not tough on crime.” As a result of its reduced prison population, Texas has closed eight prisons in six years.
Even though some governors are for criminal reform for financial reasons, Holden said that many are inspired watching people turn their lives around, something he calls “come in for the savings and stay for the salvation.”
Jones spoke about his adversarial relationship with conservative Newt Gingrich on CNN’s “Crossfire.”
“We discovered that we agreed on this thing,” he said.
“Something about this issue is bringing out the best in both political parties.”