Will the Strange Bedfellow Team of Van Jones and Newt Gingrich Push Congress to Reverse Decades of Criminal Justice and Prison Policy?

Human Rights

Washington’s newest unlikely power couple is the head-turning combination of Newt Gingrich, the white-haired former House Speaker and elbows-out Republican, and Van Jones, the African-American racial and environmental justice reformer who became a CNN commentator after a stint as Obama’s green jobs coordinator. They have joined forces as the newest high-profile faces calling for criminal justice reforms, from less harsh sentences for non-violent crimes to cutting the prison population in half.

“I was hardcore on the issue of crime,” Gingrich told a recent summit attended by 400 state legislators, judges, prison system administrators and federal justice officials, saying that the get-tough-on-crime policies that he helped adopt—including a crime bill from President Bill Clinton that led to an explosion of new prisons—have backfired. “There were tremendous unintended consequences. Locking up people for very minor drug offenses destroyed their future. It didn’t teach them a lesson and it didn’t seem to be having any effect on convincing the rest of the community.”   

Gingrich’s mea culpa—in one of many ongoing appeareances with Jones—didn’t end there. He continued framing a right-wing case for reform. “You cannot be a conservative who inherently distrusts government and inherently favors personal freedom and look at the number of people in jail in the U.S. and not be deeply troubled.”

When Jones took the microphone, he also stepped away from—and even more forcefully criticized—his side of the political aisle’s track record on criminal justice reform.

“I think that many Democrats have felt afraid to move, because they might get accused of being soft on crime,” he said. “Or they might see a Willie Horton ad run against them—that kind of fear. And the public and Republicans have moved on. And I think the Democrats, actually, have let some of the innovation and some of the reform slip away to the red states… Those of us in blue states need to start catching up to the public, and catching up to the performance data [why prisons don’t work], and catching up to some of the experimentation. I think that we have been there ideologically, but we haven’t been there politically.”

Gingrich and Jones are not playing a rhetorical game. As stunning as Gingrich’s reversal seems from his past stances, he is hardly alone in rightwing circles, where there has been a growing movement—with different roots among libertarians and evangelicals—calling for prison reform. The most eyebrow-raising example is the entry of the Koch brothers into a coalition that now includes the left-leaning American Civil Liberties Union, Center for American Progress, Families Against Mandatory Minimums, and others, including Jones’ Cut50.org, which seeks to cut U.S. prison populations in half.

But Jones’ critique that Democrats “haven’t been there politically” is just as startling. In two other instances during his presentation with Gingrich at the Pew Center on the States’ “Justice Reinvestment National Summit,” Jones said that conservatives might be easier to talk to, and have more to offer African-Americans, than Democrats and their longtime allies. With Gingrich beside him, Jones raised racial justice concerns, saying as a prelude, for example, that the recent national protests over abusive policing are “not just because of one incident [like Ferguson, Missouri]” and “there is an overall sense in the African-American community… of a guilty-until-proven-innocent standard.”

“All of that creates some real heartbreak,” he said. “But it also creates opportunities for new coalitions—for African-Amerians who are concerned about their kids, and their kids’ future, to stand with people who are conservative, who—and maybe we haven’t had the conversation before—and get a different set of solutions. I think many people will be surprised how deeply conservative many African-Americans are when it comes to raising young people.”

Whites and Racial Justice

Jones’ comments reflect a sentiment in racial justice circles that many white-dominated progressive groups don’t see, or they don’t want to face the realities of racism as experienced by communties of color. “The rhetoric and stagecraft employed by white progressives whom I admire too often—inadvertently, I think—leaves out people who aren’t white,” wrote Salon.com’s Joan Walsh, when assessing how Sens. Bernie Sanders, I-VT, and  Elizabeth Warren, D-MA, talk about economic inequality.

If you ask, you’ll find other examples where that schism prevented what seemed on the surface like a natural political alliance. One Los Angeles organizer cited the reluctance of African-Americans to join a gun control coalition—not because they didn’t want to get rid of guns from their streets, but because they didn’t want their relatives thrown in jail as an unintended consequence. That same dynamic played out in that city years ago during a crack epidemic. Jones telegraphed that same point, telling Pew’s audience of 400 law enforcement policy makers, that Democrats aren’t really engaging with African-Americans’ more personal concerns and beliefs.

He went further and said conservatives might be the best mentors for entrepreneurial black youths who get caught in drug dealing, adding that the conservative case for criminal justice reform was deeper than cutting tax dollars and public spending.      

“I think conservatives are sometimes unfairly seen as being interested in the cost aspects of this,” Jones said. “The conservatives that I have been meeting with have been just as concerned about the moral side of it, and the principles involved—like Newt said, liberty and that kind of stuff. We are wasting a ton of genius in the country. Some of these young people are maybe overly entrepreneurial; they haven’t been able to make money in a good way, a smart way. And you’ve got an over-indexing of really smart kids ending up behind bars. If we can figure out a way to get those young folks on a better pathway—and frankly some of the conservative folks in the business community might be better mentors than the people they have been looking at on TV to find mentorship. Tthere’s a real different America out there if we find some ways to come together.”

Jones told Pew's audience that “the Obama administration has taken some important steps” to reform federal sentencing guidelines.” However, state-level reforms, where the majority of criminal justice policies are created, is another matter. “If you live in blue states, you haven’t seen as much reform. So I think we are in a really strange moment now where there is the opportunity for some really strange bedfellows.”   

Much of what Jones and Gingrich are doing is pragmatic. Both chambers of Congress are in GOP hands. They see a growing consensus that sentencing and other criminal justice reforms could be adopted—by appealing to both sides of the aisle—and signed into law by President Obama. Anthony Romero, the ACLU executive director and a partner in their effort, told The Atlantic that having influential Republicans on board—such as the Koch brothers—means something might happen.

“There’s always some unhappiness whenever you work with, quote-unquote, the enemy,” he said. “Having the Koch brothers involved fundamentally changes the landscape. It gives legitimacy to this issue as a proper field of inquiry for Republican political leaders.”     

Of course, in politics, there are always many reasons for doing anything—not just what one faction would consider the right or best reason. To say that progressives are skeptical of the Koch’s involvement is a vast understatement. And it’s not just the Kochs, but also many of the 70 signatories to the Right On Crime coalition’s mission statement, which include a cast of longtime right-wing opponents. Their statement of principles primarily focuses on the prison system’s excessive costs, inefficiency and poor results. Racial justice isn’t mentioned, but perhaps that doesn’t matter if it’s still the result.  

Back on the Frontlines

This winter at another forum, Jones sat next to Mark Holden, Koch Industries’ general counsel, and said the political “stars are aligned” for comprehensive change, as evidenced by bipartisan support for reform. That led to press reports noting the “strange bedfellows” moment, especially since Jones had called the Kochs “the 1 percent at its very worst” in the Robert Greenwald’s 2014 documentary, Koch Brothers Exposed. Other Democrats were there too, such as Sens. Cory Booker, D-NJ, and Al Franken, D-MN. But as Yahoo News reported, Jones hugged Holden, later telling The Atlantic, “When you’ve got more than 2 million people behind bars, I’ll fight along side anybody to change those numbers.”      

“The Kochs are complete hypocrites on this,” Greenwald said, expressing the sentiment of many on the left. “Yes, they are supporting criminal justice reform with some dollars, but they are supporting the WORST candidates, i.e., Scott Walker, etc., who are horrific on criminal justice reform. Imagine if they said to candidates, we won’t support you unless you have a sensible position on criminal justice.”

There are other concerns about the growing bipartisan embrace of justice reforms. As David J. Krajicek noted in a detailed AlterNet report, a bipartisan consensus starting in the 1980s created the very system that advocates like Jones now hope to dismantle. The war on drugs started by Ronald Reagan, the 1994 Gingrich-Clinton crime bill that spent $33 billion on building prisons, the imposition of sentencing guidelines than removed discretion from judges, and privatizing prisons all emerged with bipartisan support.    

Longtime prison policy watchers like Ruth Wilson Gilmore, a City Universty of New York professor, told GRITtv that she was worried about the “rhetoric that accompanies this kind of bipartisan consensus.”

She pointed to California, where Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown has resisted implementing Prop. 47, a 2014 ballot measure that changed sentences and hoped to shrink prison population. Her fear was similar reforms could “harden the system for everyone who doesn’t stand to benefit.” 

On the other hand, Mark Mauer, executive director of the Sentencing Project, which also seeks to reverse the draconian prison terms, reform the re-entry process and restore felon voting rights, is a supporter of Jones’ efforts. He said that the conservatives were using different ideological frames but ended up taking positions long espoused by liberals. 

“I’m not convinced they are saying anything that is so dramatically different or hasn’t been said before,” he said. “Their story is that liberals tried to get sentencing reform for a number of years and couldn’t get it done. Now conservatives show up and it’s moving… I don’t think the conseratives are saying much beyond what Sen. [Richard] Durban, D-IL, or Sen. [Patrick] Leahy, D-VT, are talking about, at best—in terms of what policy changes are necessary. They are not talking about race. Only Rand Paul is.”

Mauer, who co-authored a recent New York Times commentary about ending mass incarceration—saying the new bipartisan “consensus glosses over the real challenges” such as “providing meaningful work opportunities to the most disadvantaged” and overcoming opposition “from rural community leaders who see prisons as economic development”—said it was important to remember that the country’s attitudes about crime and punishment have been slowly changing for more than a decade. 

“The political climate has been shifting,” he said. “Crime rates have been declining since the mid-1990s. It’s much less politicized and less emotional. People care more about jobs and their savings. There’s more room to discuss what reasonable policy should be. And new prison growth has slowed down. Now here come the conservatives, even though a number of things have changed over the last 15 years.”

Mauer said his Capitol Hill lobbyist has met with the Koch’s lobbyist a few times.  “No, they’re not offering us money—I’m not sure what we’d do if they did,” he said. “What’s their hidden agenda? A lot of people on the right want to stop white-collar crime convictions. To their credit, they haven’t said they’d back us on drug crime reform if we back them on white-collar crime reform. Most of the stuff they are talking about is my stuff—my issues. They’re not making it a requirement of their participation that we buy into the rest of their agenda.”      

Meanwhile, the attention-getting duo of Van Jones and Newt Gingrich is pushing ahead. They are continuing to make joint appearances. There are a handful of criminal justice reform bills before the current Congress, some of which may see action later this year. And some of their coalition partners on the left—like this new Center for American Progress fact sheet about the system that looks through a racial justice perspective.         

To Mauer, and Jones, it doesn’t entirely matter what one’s political motives are if the prison system can begin to be dismantled. But understanding the nexis of race, poverty and crime will very much determine what happens next as that unfolds, Mauer said.

“If we reduce the prison population by 50 percent over 10 years, what do we do then,” he said. “We want to spend the billions [saved] in disadvantaged communities, so people don’t face the justice system. Maybe that’s not so with the conservatives, maybe they want to pay down the debt.”

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