Finally, a Well-Funded Criminal Justice Reform Campaign

I’ve pointed out for many years that one of the big reasons that criminal justice reform never goes anywhere is because there’s no moneyed constituency with a stake in the outcome to mount a well-funded campaign for it. But the ACLU has just received the largest grant in its history from Soros’ main foundation to do just that.

With a $50 million foundation grant, the largest in its history, the American Civil Liberties Union plans to mount an eight-year political campaign across the country to make a change of criminal justice policies a key issue in local, state and national elections.

The goal of the campaign, financed by George Soros’s Open Society Foundations, is to slash an incarceration rate that has tripled since 1980. There are currently some 2.2 million prisoners in the United States.

The campaign aims to translate into state and federal policy a growing belief among many scholars, as well as of a coalition of liberal, conservative and libertarian political leaders, that the tough-on-crime policies of recent decades have become costly and counterproductive.

In that view, widespread drug arrests and severe mandatory sentences are doing more to damage poor communities, especially African-American ones, than to prevent crime, and building ever more prisons that mostly turn out repeat offenders is a bad investment…

While the A.C.L.U. has often been associated with liberal causes like ending the death penalty and promoting same-sex marriage, Anthony D. Romero, the group’s executive director, said the organization was building ties with conservative leaders promoting alternatives to incarceration and would not hesitate to aid Republican candidates who support needed steps.

“I think criminal justice reform is one of the few issues where you can break through the partisan gridlock,” Mr. Romero said, adding that the group would seek out Republican lobbying firms to help reach legislators.

In the latest example of converging views, conservatives including Newt Gingrich and B. Wayne Hughes Jr., a Christian philanthropist, joined the Soros-led foundation and the A.C.L.U. in support of Proposition 47, a California ballot measure to redefine many lower-level felonies, including possession for personal use of hard drugs, as misdemeanors. The change, which passed by a wide margin on Tuesday, is expected to keep tens of thousands of offenders out of prison and save the state hundreds of millions of dollars each year.

The Koch brothers, major funders of conservative causes and candidates, have joined in. Koch Industries recently gave a grant “of significant six figures” to the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers to support the defense of indigents, said Mark Holden, senior vice president and general counsel at Koch Industries.

This is true. There are many conservatives who support criminal justice reform, but without any money to back it the legislatures have done very little on it. The best place to start will probably be the state level, where a bit of progress has been made already but there is much more to be done. I’m really, really happy about this. By the way, do you know who gave the previous largest grant ever to the ACLU? The Koch brothers, a $20 million grant to fight against the Patriot Act.

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  • John Pieret

    But … but … SOOOOOOROS!

    It’s got to be a liberal plot! Ii’s a shame that political naifs like the Koch brothers have been suckered into this!

  • D. C. Sessions

    In that view, widespread drug arrests and severe mandatory sentences are doing more to damage poor communities, especially African-American ones, than to prevent crime, and building ever more prisons that mostly turn out repeat offenders is a bad investment

    Well, preventing crime would be nice but at least it accomplishes the two main objectives.

  • slatham

    I did not know that the Koch’s fought the Patriot Act. That stretches my brain a bit. Thank you.

  • slatham

    Damn. Stray apostrophe.

  • ArtK

    It’s going to be a long, hard haul, I’m afraid. California just took a very small step with Proposition 47. It reduced some non-violent crimes from felonies to misdemeanors (unless the perp has convictions for violent felonies already.) The amount of “OMG, drug addicts wandering the streets stealing our stuff with no consequences!!11!1!!!” that showed up on my FB feed was disheartening to say the least.

    Prop 47 did have an interesting provision: Resentencing for people convicted under the old rules. There are an estimated 10,000 prisoners who will have their cases reheard. Not automatically released, as the Chicken Littles of the world fear; just having their sentences reviewed.

    There are also funds going to education and neighborhood support as well as victim’s compensation. All-in-all, a good step forward. I’m really surprised that the corrections officer’s union (one of the most powerful in the state) didn’t succeed in opposing this. It was supported by quite a few people in law enforcement.

  • hunter

    Oh, Rush will have a field day with this.

    Not to mention all those Republican governors who want to privatize their states.

  • David C Brayton

    Good news. Very good news.

  • Leo T.

    Slatham: The Koch’s aren’t “giant asshole conservatives” so much as they are “giant asshole libertarians”. Which means they overlap strongly with the Republicans in areas that they see as purely economic, but the ideology nevertheless leads them into areas that aren’t quite so screwed up. If I were to be cynical I could say “if it makes life harder for white guys, the Kochs are against it”, but even that oversimplifies.