TOPICS > Politics

Criminal justice is so broken, Democrats and Republicans are working together to fix it

April 30, 2015 at 6:35 PM EDT
The U.S. accounts for just 5 percent of the world’s population, but it houses more than 20 percent of its prisoners. Now groups on opposite sides of the political spectrum are working together to overhaul the country’s criminal justice system. Judy Woodruff learns more about the Coalition for Public Safety from Neera Tanden of the Center for American Progress and Mark Holden of Koch Industries.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Now – a different piece of the criminal justice story. Tonight we are launching an occasional series called Broken Justice that looks at what might be a breakthrough moment in attitudes toward imprisonment in America.

The figures are staggering: Since 1980 the number of those incarcerated has increased from half a million behind bars then, to more than 2.2 million people in prisons and jails in 2013.

And the numbers stand out globally. While the U.S. accounts for 5 percent of the world’s population, it houses more than 20 percent of its prisoners. In a significant shift, groups on opposite sides of the political spectrum, that often find themselves at odds – like Koch Industries from the right, and the center for American progress from the left  – are coming together with a common goal — to overhaul the country’s criminal justice system.

They’ve launched “The Coalition for Public Safety.”

To learn more, we are joined by Neera Tanden, president of the Center for American Progress, and Mark Holden, senior vice president and general counsel of Koch Industries.

NEERA TANDEN, Center for American Progress: Good to be here.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, Mark Holden, to you first — why is this important to you and the leadership of Koch Industries?

MARK HOLDEN, Koch Industries, Inc.: It’s a very important issue to our leaders, Charles and David Koch, Charles in particular, because, really, we’re interested in helping people improve their lives and removing obstacles to opportunity, particularly for the disadvantaged and those who have the odds stacked against them. And we believe — Charles in particular — is what they call a classical liberalism, believes in that, and we believe in a limited government and strong individual rights and individual liberties. And we believe strongly in the Bill of Rights.

And so, if you bereave in individual liberty and the Bill of Rights and you’re worried about infringement on that, there is no bigger place to be than in the criminal justice system, because that’s where the greatest infringement on personal liberty starts in the criminal justice system, particularly for the poor.

Personally, I’m interested in it. I grew up in Worcester, Massachusetts. I worked in a jail after my senior year of high school and freshman year of college. And what I saw there was a lot of kids I went to school with who were from poor families who weren’t good students who got into drug problems and then ultimately made a mistake. And by the time they were 20, 21 years old, they were down a path of poverty and despair and trying to fix that is why we’re involved.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, Neera Tanden, what about you and the Center for American Progress. What draws you to these issues?

NEERA TANDEN: Well, actually, in a similar vein, we’re concerned with the challenges of rising inequality and how the criminal justice system is actually increasing poverty. And just to build off what Mark said, when you have a young person who goes into the prison system, that affects — in today’s America, that affects their ability to get a good-paying job the rest of their lives. So you’re not just burdening that person, you’re burdening their families. You’re burdening the communities.

So, we have to have a system in which we focus on violent offenders. We move non-violent offenders out of the reach of the criminal justice system. People are able to get back on their feet and they don’t have the stigma the rest of their lives. That’s a big challenge, as well.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Mark Holden, there are so many layers to this problem, this set of problems. How do you decide what are your priorities?  What to go after first?

MARK HOLDEN: Well, there’s a lot to go after, and there’s really three guide posts that we have to look at all the different areas. One is everything we do, everything that’s done in our criminal justice system should be done to enhance public safety, make it safer.

So, to Neera’s point, violent criminals in prison, people with drugs problems, people who are mentally ill, get them out of prison and get them help. Maybe they can get productive lives and not become violent criminals.

Second step, honor the Bill of Rights, Fourth, Fifth, Sixth and Eighth Amendments are focused on criminal justice issues. That tells you what the Founding Fathers thought about how important that was.

Third is treating everybody with respect. As an individual in the system, from the victims to the accused to lawmaker and their families. The keys here, there’s a lot of things you can work on, the laws that are passed, because we’ve criminalized way too much conduct that shouldn’t be criminal, to all the way to the sentencing issues, to re-entry.

I think that, for us, you know, we have a lot of different priorities potentially, but we need to focus on where we think we can get something done. And it seems at the federal level, there’s a lot of consensus coming together to giving some relief from long prison sentences for people who aren’t violent offenders and helping reenter society in a way they can have a productive life.

And at Koch, we took a step toward that. Recently, we got rid of the box on our application about felony convictions, and the whole idea being here that — we’ll do a background check at the end of the process if we’re interested in the person, but to Neera’s point, helping a person after they make a mistake, don’t brand them a criminal for life, maybe help them get back on their feet, lead a productive life and be — have a good family life, and move on with their lives.

JUDY WOODRUFF: There still are critics, the skeptics out there.

I just want to quote Senator Chuck Grassley of Iowa, who’s chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, holds a very important position on the Hill. Just this week he said, and I’m quoting, “With a heroin epidemic strangling some of our communities, and white-collar criminals getting paltry sentences, the last thing we need to do is take a tool away that law enforcement and prosecutors use to get the bad guys.”

NEERA TANDEN: So, I think that’s why this coalition is so important, right?  It’s important that we have the left and the right making these arguments. And I have been really pleased by how much the conservative groups in our coalition are trying to have conversations with Senator Grassley and say, you know, you can care about law and order in our country and also make our system be more effective and actually not ruin so many lives.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Are you making progress?

MARK HOLDEN: Well, I don’t — I mean, I don’t know that Senator Grassley is misaligned on these issues because I’ve heard him say a lot of things with what we’ve been talking about. And he’s a good man.

And I think in our — on the Republican side, I think there’s a desire to come together and get this done in the House and the Senate. And I think that to the extent what Senator Grassley said was, yes, violent criminals and people who commit massive fraud, they’ll be subject to long sentences. What we’re talking about are more non-violent offenders, first-time offenders, low-level offenders not getting really long sentences.

And so, I think there will be consensus around these issues, and I think that if you look at the experience that’s gone on in the states and several what’s so-called red states — from Texas, Mississippi, Georgia, South Dakota, even Ohio, which is more a purple state, a lot of progress in these same areas. So, that should give us all comfort that Republicans can get those things done in the states. We can do it in the Senate and the House, as well.

JUDY WOODRUFF: It is harder to work together, Neera Tanden, because you’re typically not aligned on many issues?

NEERA TANDEN: Well, we have — we have disagreed before. And it’s likely we’ll disagree again. But I think that really speaks to the importance of this issue. We are willing and our friends on the right are willing to come together and work on it. And I think that that really speaks to how many lives have been ruined by the criminal justice system and how we all have a responsibility to address it.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The developments in Baltimore, coupled with everything else that’s been happening in some inner city communities around the country between the police and young black men, does that make it a moment when it’s easier to get this kind of work done?

NEERA TANDEN: I should hope so. I mean, I’ve been heartened by not only our discussions, but you see more and more people across the political system recognizing that these aren’t just particular instances of what I consider police brutality, but also broader issues are at play.

And the fact that so many people are kind of captured in a criminal justice system, that then tends to really hurt their ability to have opportunity is a big challenge, and I’m glad that folks on the left and the right can see that.

MARK HOLDEN: Here’s my point of view: I think that what we’re doing in our criminal justice system is putting our behave lawmaker officers at risk. But we’re asking them to do all the things we as a society weren’t willing to do and aren’t willing to do. We have them in the schools now. We have them dealing with homeless people. We have them dealing with mentally ill people and drug addicts.

We should make our police help them do their jobs. They signed up to help protect and defend the communities. They’re very brave. And they end up because of all these laws created, all these programs, that they end up in constant conflict enforcing other things, like dealing with mentally ill people, low-level drug crimes and it creates tension.

I think if we fix our criminal justice system, let our law enforcement officers do what they wanted to do, it would improve the relationship with the communities and they’d be defending them and go after violent criminals and that would improve everything quite frankly. So, fixing that will help address that, as well.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, this is the first in a series of conversations, as we said.

Mark Holden with Koch Industries, Neera Tanden with the Center with American Progress — we thank you both.

NEERA TANDEN: Thank you.

MARK HOLDEN: Thank you.