THE BLOG
07/29/2015 10:08 am ET | Updated Jul 29, 2016

100 Million Reasons We Need Justice Reform -- One Blueprint for How to Do It

Last week's Bipartisan Summit on Fair Justice brought the nation's leading voices to DC to discuss forging a path forward. The result? A blueprint for action.

2.3 million.

That's the number of Americans incarcerated.

That's more than the population of New Mexico. Nebraska. West Virginia. Idaho. Vermont. Montana. Hawaii. Maine. New Hampshire.

That's more than the number of Americans in the armed forces.

We have more jails and prisons than colleges and universities.

We represent 5 percent of the global population. But 25 percent of the world's known prison population.

As many as 100 million Americans have criminal records - roughly the population of California, Texas, Florida and Illinois combined.

Criminal records that bankrupt opportunities for a second chance. Criminal records that make it difficult to secure a job, housing, education - for 100 million people.

The justice system needs reform now, and there are 100 million reasons why.

But how do we get it done? How do we move beyond words, into action?

Last week, the Coalition for Public Safety co-hosted the Bipartisan Summit on Fair Justice in Washington, DC (in conjunction with #cut50), bringing together national lawmakers, administration officials, justice reform advocates and community voices from across the country to ask them that very question: how do we move from words into action?

What emerged was breathtaking: despite the many differences in perspectives, personal experiences and political persuasions, there was broad consensus on the main pillars of action needed to achieve meaningful reform. And even more striking, that emerging consensus dovetailed with the Coalition's Fair Sentencing and Fair Chances effort - a federal and state educational campaign focused on reducing the prison population and breaking down barriers for ex-offenders to successfully re-enter society.

The Fair Sentencing and Fair Chances campaign lays out a clear baseline for real bipartisan reform aimed at cutting incarceration costs, reducing recidivism, reducing jail and prison populations, and removing barriers for those re-entering society to lead productive lives.

Developed by the Coalition's partner organizations - the nation's most prominent progressive and conservative organizations - the tenets that make up Fair Sentencing and Fair Chances received overwhelming support at last week's Summit.

Fair Sentencing: Let the punishment fit the crime committed.

The prison system is beyond capacity, costing taxpayers $80 billion every year. Based on most recent statistics, nearly half of the population behind bars in state prisons is serving time for non-violent offenses - many of which are serving lengthy sentences based on mandatory sentencing practices that don't take into account the threat that an offender actually poses to society.

Reducing mandatory minimums for non-violent drug offenders is a key element of reform, and a major piece of the Fair Sentencing and Fair Chances effort.

Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates spoke at last week's Summit of skyrocketing incarceration rates since the 1980s and said that "to make lasting changes ... Congress must restore a proportionality to our sentencing laws ... we need an approach that's more tailored so we can distinguish between those who are a genuine threat to our society and those who are not."

Rep. Bobby Scott (D-VA) also spoke to sentencing practices at the Summit, saying "we're making sure sentencing is rehabilitative and we're not just warehousing people."

Mandatory minimum sentencing has contributed to a system that's beyond capacity, and costing taxpayers dearly.

Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-WI) said at the Summit that, "prison spending has increased by 595%, a staggering figure which is both irresponsible and unsustainable."

Reduced prison sentences for drug offenses can help achieve cost savings. In Texas, for example, funding alternatives to incarceration have allowed the state to produce over $3 billion in savings over the last decade, including the closure of three prisons, all while keeping crime at the lowest rate since 1968.

But what happens after prison is just as important as what happens before and during prison.

Fair Chances: Addressing the lifelong consequences of a criminal record.

One in three Americans - as many as 100 million adults - has a criminal record.

Because a criminal history record creates barriers to housing, education and employment, it can often stand between another chance and another visit to prison.

Reducing the lifelong barriers that people face to successfully re-enter society when exiting the prison system is another key piece of the Fair Sentencing and Fair Chances effort.

Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) spoke at last week's Summit to this issue, saying, "I think the biggest impediment to employment and to voting in our country is a criminal record. And until we address that, I don't think we're serious about either voting rights or getting people back to work and minimizing the people who have to be on assistance."

Re-entry reforms are critical to reducing recidivism and the prison population - without access to employment, housing, and education, ex-offenders have little opportunity to successfully re-enter society, gain employment and start turning their lives around.

Roy Austin of the White House agreed: "This is not just a criminal justice issue. This is a housing issue. This is a jobs issue. This is a health issue."

The Fair Sentencing and Fair Chances campaign supports efforts like "banning the box" - to prevent automatic or categorical disqualification for a job based on a person's record - as well as opportunities to seal and expunge records, to give ex-offenders who are serious about turning their lives around an opportunity to succeed.

Mark Holden of Koch Industries, Inc. said at the Summit, "no one should be judged for the rest of their life for their worst day," and Anne Milgram of the Arnold Foundation said, "I sit here today because I was taught as a child everyone should have an opportunity to succeed ... you shouldn't be defined by your mistakes."

Dionne Wilson of Californians for Safety and Justice said at the Summit, "I want to talk more about no entry, about people never entering the system ... that we stop feeding this machine of incarceration."

For a full overview of the Coalition's Fair Sentencing & Fair Chances campaign, at both the federal and state level, please visit the website here. For more information about last week's Bipartisan Summit on Fair Justice, and to watch an archived webcast of the entire event, please click here or watch below.

The Bipartisan Summit on Fair Justice (#FairJustice):