Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich at the Bipartisan Summit on Criminal Justice Reform in Washington, D.C., March 26, 2015
Eric Hill

Get tough on crime.

That was the mantra throughout the United States, both at the local and federal levels, as crime boomed toward the end of the 1970s. Many laws were passed, putting more police on the street and inflicting higher and higher penalties for various crimes in direct response to fears over drugs and gang violence.

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At Thursday’s Bipartisan Summit on Criminal Justice Reform in Washington, D.C., the complaint was that these laws were too effective, resulting in America’s dependence on law enforcement and a legal system to deal with society’s ills. Speakers at the summit said that poverty, addiction, homelessness and mental illness have become criminalized, and the only tools police and the courts have in their arsenal to deal with these issues are arrest and imprisonment.

This, said the lawmakers, religious leaders and activists at the summit, is what has to change.

“We must reject the notion that old practices are unchangeable, that the policies that have governed our institutions for decades cannot be altered and that the way things have always been done is the way they must always be done,” said Attorney General Eric Holder to an audience of more than 600 attendees at the summit.

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Holder, who was warmly received by the crowd, rattled off the stark statistics from the too successful war on crime: that the U.S. federal prison population has grown by 800 percent since 1980; that the U.S. is only 5 percent of the world’s population but holds 25 percent of the world’s prisoners; that an estimated 1 in 28 American children has a parent behind bars, and for African-American children that ratio is 1 in 9.

“It is time—long past time—to take decisive action in order to end a vicious cycle of poverty, criminality and incarceration that traps too many individuals, degrades too many families and devastates too many communities,” Holder said.

This issue—the moral issue—was the main one both sides of the political aisle claimed drew them to the summit, which was hosted by activist and founder of #cut50 Van Jones, former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, Democratic political analyst Donna Brazile, and Pat Nolan, a former politician and conservative activist. Over and over again, activists and politicians alike focused on the devastating and costly effect of using the criminal-justice system to deal with nonviolent crime, homelessness, mental illness and drug addiction.

“Conservatives turned a blind eye to injustices to criminal-justice system,” said Nolan during his morning address. He added, “The damage done to families, communities, the human cost in addition to the financial cost, wasn’t worth it. … We’re not getting enough public safety for all that we’re spending.”

Nolan pushed back against claims that some conservatives were only interested in the reform movement from a fiscal perspective, saying that it is the moral issue that fuels them.

“We believe in human dignity,” Nolan said. “Each individual is worthy of respect. No matter what we’ve done, we can redeem ourselves. We can turn our life around. It is our obligation. Look for that commonality. … That idea of human dignity; that’s what binds us together.”

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So if this is an issue that both sides can agree on, did our government go wrong? Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Va.) laid the blame squarely on war-on-crime fervor and overeager politicians seeking to gain favor by presenting themselves as the toughest on crime.

“We don’t do much in Congress, but we have been able to mess up the criminal code over the last 50 years,” said Scott, who pointed out the absurdity of the federal criminal code, like how carjacking is considered a federal offense but, he said, no one “calls the FBI” when they are being carjacked. “Why should that be in the criminal code?”

Scott said that policymakers must learn “that massive incarceration is not the answer to every crime.” Scott told the summit there needs to be more focus on rehabilitation and providing support for released prisoners so they don’t return to crime in order to support themselves.

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Most of the politicos on hand for the conference stayed on for an upbeat message of togetherness and sensible solutions, but Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) briefly declared he was “going off message” to address the fact that most of the reforms winding through Congress deal only with nonviolent offenders and that the definition of violent crime needs to change. Booker told the story of a man who faced stiff prison time as the driver during a stickup where a gun was used. Even though it was never fired and all the man did was drive, he was slammed with some of the same penalties he would have received if he’d held the gun, because of the definition of violent crime.

“We have to re-examine the system as a whole,” Booker said before quoting slain civil rights activist Martin Luther King Jr., adding, “Change will not roll in on the wheels of inevitability. … People dying. Children longing for their dads and moms. This is not going to change unless we work together.”

Although the summit was bipartisan, many of the speakers who were present for the actual summit were left-leaning. The morning was dominated by Democratic Congress members. Jones, who was handling hosting duties, noted this frequently and assured the audience they would be hearing from more conservatives throughout the day. During a lunch session, a video from Republican Gov. Rick Perry of Texas played in which Perry also echoed the summit’s theme of dealing with mass incarceration as a moral issue.

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Gingrich and other conservatives present at the summit were emphatic that there is support for criminal-justice reform on their side of the aisle, but Scott hinted at what may be the reason that some—even if they are for criminal-justice reform—may be reluctant to be too public about it.

“There’s no downside in voting stupid on crime,” Scott said, laying some of the blame on the media that he claimed seemed to be, at times, more interested in why a member of Congress voted against a crime bill than in why he or she would vote for it. He also said the “get tough on crime” mantra is heavily intertwined in politics. “We have conservatives fixated on the idea that to be conservative, you have to be tough on crime.”

Scott also said that liberals are often afraid of the specter of Willie Horton, a criminal whose story was sensationalized in a presidential-campaign attack ad against Democratic candidate Michael Dukakis in 1986. He said that Democratic politicians are afraid of being accused of not being tough on crime.

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Still, Democrats and Republicans at the summit were optimistic about their chances at pushing through reform, saying that the key to getting the numerous criminal-justice reform bills currently floating in Congress passed would be public support. Changing our laws on crime is what many believe is the right thing to do, Gingrich said, but Congress needs “a citizen movement” to put pressure on politicians to support it.