Conversation on Criminal Justice Reform Shows Support from Attorney General, Bipartisan Members of Congress

By Gabe Colman, a Leadership Conference Education Fund Intern

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, members of Congress, civil rights leaders, and criminal justice experts demonstrated strong bipartisan support for ending mass incarceration at an event co-sponsored by The Leadership Conference Education Fund and the Vera Institute of Justice at the Georgetown University Law Center last week.  Holder delivered opening remarks at the event, titled “A Conversation on Criminal Justice: A Call to Action for the Nation,” and discussed the Department of Justice’s “Smart on Crime Initiative” while calling on legislators to end felony disenfranchisement in America.

“Today, we gather in recognition of the fact that, although our laws and procedures must be continually updated, our commitment to the cause of justice must remain constant,” Holder said. He emphasized the fact that criminal justice reform is not a partisan issue and that the goal is to shape a “system that deters and punishes crime, keeps us safe, and ensures that those who pay their debts have the chance to become productive citizens.”

Following Holder’s remarks, a dynamic panel of experts engaged in a conversation about strategies for building a national commitment to end mass incarceration. In addition, Rep. Bobby Scott, D. Va., along with Sens. Rand Paul, R. Ky., Mike Lee, R. Utah, and Sheldon Whitehouse, D. R.I., discussed the effects of mass incarceration on the country and stressed the importance of bipartisan support.

Laura Murphy, director of the ACLU’s Washington legislative office and a member of the panel, recommended three first steps: 1) Rein in the power of prosecutors, 2) Pass the Smarter Sentencing Act with no additional mandatory minimum sentences, and 3) End mass incarceration. Murphy echoed Holder’s point about bipartisanship and said that “we have to come together…organizations on the left and right.”

Lee, the lead sponsor of the Smarter Sentencing Act, agreed with Holder’s and the panel’s belief that the criminal justice system is in dire need of reform. He said that criminal justice policies have succeeded in trapping the offenders as well as the men, women, and children on the outside of prisons in “isolation, poverty, immobility.”

Paul, a co-sponsor of the Smarter Sentencing Act, illustrated the effects of mandatory minimums and mass incarceration in his state. “Mandatory minimums to me are the tip of the iceberg,” he said, noting that one-third of young Black Kentuckians are unable to vote because of felony convictions.

The Smarter Sentencing Act is a “common sense reform,” according to Whitehouse, a co-sponsor of the bill. He said it costs the federal government $8 billion per year to keep prisoners locked up, and urged that the nation must “pay attention not just to the inmates and their transitions, but also the communities that receive them.” He also said “we cannot incarcerate our way to keeping the public safe” and we shouldn’t be “naïve about the path forward.”

Watch this youtube video playlist to view remarks from the event:

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