The Charles Koch Institute continued its work of assembling an unlikely alliance of people and groups from across the ideological spectrum to discuss ways of reforming America’s criminal justice system. Around 500 attendees from 300 organizations gathered at the Crowne Plaza Hotel in New Orleans last week for Advancing Justice 2015, the Koch Institute’s largest conference to date on prison and sentencing reform.
Among the prominent attendees, prominent voices in the conservative and progressive movement joined attendees including Grover Norquist, President of the Americans for Tax Reform and Stephanie Cutter, who served as President Barack Obama’s Deputy Campaign Manager during the 2012 presidential campaign.
The three-day summit covered a broad range of issues under the umbrella of criminal justice reform movement including: civil forfeiture, minimum-mandatory sentencing, the militarization of police and overcriminalization. Although much of the conversation centered on state and federal public policy, the summit was also heavy on tactics, strategy and messaging on what has quickly become a national issue.
President Obama made history this year by becoming the first sitting U.S. president to visit a federal prison. And Congress is considering a number of bi-partisan bills. Attendees were cautiously optimistic that Congress could pass meaningful legislation, though there remains a great deal of concern that any solution wouldn’t go far enough to make a dent in the high U.S. incarceration rate.
ALTHOUGH MUCH OF THE CONVERSATION CENTERED ON STATE AND FEDERAL PUBLIC POLICY, THE SUMMIT WAS ALSO HEAVY ON TACTICS, STRATEGY AND MESSAGING ON WHAT HAS QUICKLY BECOME A NATIONAL ISSUE.
Conservatives are keenly interested in reform as a way to reduce the fiscal impact states are facing as a result overcrowded prisons. But many of the summit’s attendees were faith leaders, pastors, and influential social-conservative groups, such as the Prison Fellowship (founded by the late Chuck Colson, who had spent time in prison for his role in the Watergate scandal 40 years ago).
Personal accounts of redemption were frequently mentioned throughout the summit. Kurt E. Moore spent nearly 13 years in a federal penitentiary for trafficking drugs. Today, Moore owns K-Love’s Auto Detailing, a successful auto detailing shop, where he frequently hires ex-offenders and acts as a mentor to at-risk youth.
Character development was a recurring theme throughout the conference as a way to cut down on recidivism and ensure that ex-offenders are able to reintegrate successfully into society.
As Opportunity Lives has reported, former convicts often find themselves back in prison because they lack a support network and are unable to find work to support themselves. Many of them need counseling for drug addiction and other rehab services, said U.S. Rep. Cedric Richmond (D-La.). The federal government has a role, Richmond said, but there are times when government “has to get out of the way.”
Indeed, there was a shared consensus that nonprofits and even faith based organizations have an important role in order to restore dignity to the incarcerated and ex-offenders in society.
Partisan walls were torn down in New Orleans thanks to the Charles Koch Institute’s leadership in bringing an impressive group of individuals across the ideological spectrum.
Israel Ortega is a Senior Writer for Opportunity Lives. You can follow him on Twitter @IzzyOrtega.