THE BLOG
11/11/2014 07:18 pm ET Updated Jan 11, 2015

Newt Gingrich and Jay Z Came Together on Sentencing Reform. Maybe There's a Lesson for Congress?

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Fresh off their sweeping victory in last week's election, Republicans have begun mapping out a policy agenda for the 114th Congress. President Obama has pledged to work with GOP leaders to find common ground, while the pundits predict two more years of gridlock. Could Democrats and Republicans actually find a way to work together, proving the skeptics wrong?

We think so, based on the results of a ballot initiative we both worked on in California. The two of us, a progressive reformer in Oakland and a conservative investor in Malibu, found common ground in our opposition to our state's over-reliance on incarceration. We came together to pass Proposition 47, a sensible reform to the state's criminal sentencing laws to reduce incarceration and increase investments in crime prevention.

Five years ago, this partnership would have been unimaginable. But we found a way--and brought the ACLU, Rand Paul, Newt Gingrich and Jay Z together around the same idea. The measure passed with 59 percent of the vote. Maybe there's a lesson in our campaign for Congress and the President to follow.

Proposition 47 changes six low-level offenses (e.g., simple drug possession and petty theft) from felonies to misdemeanors and is projected to save the state hundreds of millions of dollars in prison costs. Those savings would then be allocated to mental health and drug treatment, K-12 programs and victim services.

Prop. 47 is the first time voters have pulled the lever to reclassify multiple sections of the penal code to reduce prisons and better prioritize law enforcement resources. It's also the first time voters have taken money out of the prisons budget to invest in prevention and treatment.

The initiative will mean people currently incarcerated for these low-level offenses can go before a judge to see if they may be resentenced (and released). And hundreds of thousands of individuals with prior felony convictions for one of these low-level felonies can have it removed from their old criminal records - and thereby eliminating the various barriers felony convictions create to employment, education, housing and more than can legally come with a felony conviction.

Similar to previous criminal justice reform attempts (at the ballot or in state houses), many opponents of the measure used scare tactics that have played on the fears of the electorate in the past.

These old tactics have worked before, but not this time. A major reason Prop. 47 passed decisively is because Democrats and Republicans have not only being seeing eye to eye on our prison crisis but also are working together to end it.

That's because of our failed criminal justice policies have called out for so loudly for change. The United States incarcerates 500% more people today than 30 years ago, despite the general population only growing 36.3% from 1980 to 2010.

Meanwhile, recidivism rates run as high as 60% in states like California, partly because so much emphasis is on prison building, not investing in strategies to stop the cycle of crime. This over-reliance on incarceration, especially for nonviolent offenses, has broken state budgets and torn apart families and communities.

In recent years, both conservatives and liberals have realized that criminal justice reform is a fiscal, moral and public safety issue that must be framed as such and tackled in unison.

This realization has produced an inspiring array of bipartisan reform efforts in dozens of states, from North Carolina and Kentucky to Pennsylvania and Michigan. The results have been impressive, typically including major reductions in incarceration and state costs while also seeing crime rates remain low or even decrease.

Has this largely been an untold story because bipartisan lawmaking is not as interesting as political mudslinging? We hope not because, these efforts honor the public's support for criminal justice reforms and their continued pleas for elected officials to work together to get things done.

Today, the GOP has a major opportunity to show the nation it can work with Democratic counterparts on policy change that matters to a broad spectrum of constituents. Badly needed criminal justice reform should be at the top of the list.

The coalition that ran the Prop. 47 campaign shows that bipartisan partnership can work. The voters that passed it into law shows that the public is more than ready to finally end the prison crisis in our country by dramatically reducing incarceration and investing in the smart safety strategies our communities need. Now Republican leadership can make its mark by replicating this display of unity in federal policymaking.