- An exceptionally diverse coalition of lawmakers and advocacy groups supported the First Step Act, which Congress passed in December to reform the federal criminal justice system.
- The movement for criminal justice reform started at the state level; many red states have been experimenting with policies to reduce incarceration rates.
- In addition to state-focused groups like Right on Crime, national-level groups pushing for the First Step Act include #cut50, the ACLU, and the Sentencing Project.
In an era of chronic partisan gridlock and deepening political divisions in the United States, CNN’s Van Jones perhaps put it best when he called the passage of the First Step Act a “Christmas miracle.”
“For the first time in a generation, Republicans and Democrats are arm in arm tonight saying ‘We are sending too many people to prison. They’re coming out bitter and not better. We want to make a tremendous difference'” Jones said. “(Rep.) Hakeem Jeffries on the left, Jared Kushner and Donald Trump on the right, have brought together a coalition like I’ve never seen.”
How did this “miraculous” convergence of the left and the right happen, and who are the players behind it? Here’s a look at some of the major groups that supported the remarkable passage of reforms that will help reduce the federal prison population and improve the lives of inmates already behind bars.
Right on Crime
Criminal justice reform did not emerge from a vacuum in the halls of Congress. Over the past decade, in the aftermath of the “tough on crime” years of the Regan and Clinton eras, a number of states have pursued and implemented reforms to their prison systems, setting the stage for federal action.
While there’s much more to this story (Grassroots Pulse will be providing an overview of state-level criminal justice reforms in the coming months), one organization in particular deserves mention: Right on Crime.
When President Donald J. Trump endorsed the First Step Act, he made one thing clear about what he wanted: “criminal justice reform, Texas style.”
“You know, you think of Texas as a tough law-and-order state, and they’ve done it,” Trump said during a rally not long after endorsing the bill.
He was referring to reforms that Texas began to implement in 2007, when the state confronted a huge shortage of prison beds. Rather than building new prisons, the state opted to go with the drastically cheaper package of creating drug courts, reducing incarceration rates for nonviolent offenders, and offering rehabilitation and educational opportunities to inmates.
Right on Crime emerged out of the Austin think tank Texas Public Policy Foundation, which helped craft the reforms. Today it is a nationwide campaign in partnership with the American Conservative Union Foundation and Prison Fellowship that supports conservative solutions for reducing crime, restoring victims, reforming offenders, and lowering taxpayer costs. It has been at work in dozens of states, including Georgia, Ohio, Kentucky, Mississippi, Oklahoma, and Louisiana, that are leading the way in implementing conservative criminal justice reforms.
Right on Crime praised the passage of the First Step Act last month.
“This legislation is an historic step forward for justice and redemption in the federal criminal justice system. Building on what has proven successful in states such as Texas, South Carolina, and Georgia, these common-sense reforms will improve public safety by reducing recidivism and provide a second chance to those who have served their time and who want to live law-abiding, productive lives,” said Right on Crime Signatory and former Attorney General of Virginia Ken Cuccinelli.
The nationwide group #cut50 is the criminal justice reform extension of Dream Corps, a social justice accelerator that was founded by Van Jones in 2014 to help cutting-edge initiatives grow big enough to impact millions of lives. The group works to reduce the prison population and make America’s communities safer at the same time.
#cut50’s strategy for accomplishing this is to “bring together unlikely allies— formerly and currently incarcerated individuals, community members, crime survivors, local elected officials, and law enforcement.”
“By recognizing the humanity of those impacted, we can change laws in order to create safer streets and more peaceful neighborhoods,” their website says. Its diverse coalition of “collaborators” includes Right on Crime, the ACLU, the Sentencing Project, and the Charles Koch Institute.
According to their press release after the passage of the First Step Act, #cut50 was one of the first advocacy groups to start working with the Trump administration on the legislative effort, beginning in February 2018. The organization had been pursuing bipartisan legislation during Barack Obama’s presidency, and it was able to leverage relationships with conservative groups and leaders to continue pressing for reforms after Trump took office.
#cut50 says it was at the center of negotiations over prison reform legislation between Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., Doug Collins, R-Ga., and the White House that led to the First Step Act.
“This bill could have died a dozen different deaths. But the broad coalition that came together to pass it refused to give up. Many have seen their loved ones sent to prison or were incarcerated themselves. For all of us, this fight was deeply personal,” said Jones.
The American Civil Liberties Union has a long and storied history of advocacy on a wide range of civil rights issues in the United States. It is engaged with criminal justice through its Criminal Law Reform Project, which focuses on the “front end” of the criminal justice system, such as policing and sentencing. Excessively harsh criminal justice policies, it argues, have resulted in “mass incarceration, over-criminalization, and racial injustice, and stand in the way of a fair and equal society.”
The First Step Act originally passed through the House of Representatives by a wide margin in May last year, but the ACLU opposed it because it did not reform harsh sentencing laws, which it contends are some of the key drivers of mass incarceration at the federal level. Instead, the organization pressured the Senate to include federal sentencing reforms in a new version of the legislation.
That strategy paid off, according to ACLU policy analyst Charlotte Resing. An updated version of the First Step Act, which included sentencing reform provisions the ACLU and other civil rights organizations had fought for, was introduced in the Senate in November.
The First Step Act was a “modest, but important move toward meaningful criminal justice reform,” Resing wrote in a blog post for the ACLU. “But the system will not truly be reformed until every person receives a fair and just sentencing regardless of when they were sentenced.”
The Sentencing Project
The Sentencing Project was one of the groups with the ACLU that opposed the first version of the First Step Act that passed the House because it failed to incorporate sentencing reform. This helped open negotiations in the Senate that eventually led to President Trump’s endorsement of more substantial reforms in the bill.
Once some measure of sentencing reform was included in the bill, the Sentencing Project urged the Senate to pass it. The organization launched an online campaign and opposed an amendment proposed by GOP Senators Tom Cotton (Ark.) and John Kennedy (La.)—which it said was designed to derail the bill and weaken its rehabilitation incentive program.
Founded more than three decades ago, the Sentencing Project has a longer history than many of the other players in the criminal justice reform movement. Using research, aggressive media campaigns, and strategic advocacy for policy reform, it works to change sentencing policy, address unjust racial disparities and practices, and advocate for alternatives to incarceration. It was one of the key organizations to start informing Americans that their country is the world’s leader in incarceration.
High level supporters
At a higher level, the major foundations working behind the scenes to form criminal justice coalitions, rethink justice policies, and advocate for change include the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Laura and John Arnold Foundation (LJAF), and the Charles Koch Institute.
The first two, for instance, were among the major backers of the Square One Project, a three-year initiative which launched in September last year. The Square One Project will rethink justice policies at every level by bringing together a diverse cross-section of academics, policymakers, and community organizers. Together, according to a statement from the Arnold Foundation, they hope to “re-examine traditional responses to crime and envision a new paradigm that can address systemic inequalities.”
“The project asks: If we set aside the traditional response to crime, and ask first whether other responses might be more effective — if we begin at ‘square one’ — how would criminal justice policy be different?” said Kelli Rhee, President and CEO of LJAF.
Another prominent initiative is the MacArthur Foundation’s Safety and Justice Challenge, which works to reduce over-incarceration by changing the way America thinks about and uses jails. It provides support to local leaders from across the country who are focused on identifying the drivers of over-incarceration within their cities, counties, and states. The Safety and Justice Challenge’s network boasts “implementation sites” in 52 cities and counties, across 32 states, that aim to model and inspire reform. These sites are distributed geographically around the country and feature a wide span of jail sizes, ranging from 140 beds in Campbell County, TN to as many as 20,000 beds in Los Angeles County.
Image Credit: “Courtroom” by Karen Neoh is licensed under CC BY 2.0
Andrew Collins cut his teeth in politics as a congressional campaign staffer during the 2012 election. Since then he has worked in Washington, D.C. as the digital media manager and as a staff writer at the Franklin Center for Government & Public Integrity, and is a recent graduate of the Trinity Fellows Academy (class of ’17). His work has appeared in Politico, US News & World Report, The Chicago Tribune, The Daily Caller, and The Hill. He lives in Seattle, WA.