The NCSL Blog

06

By Mark Wolf

You never know where you will find a kindred spirit.

When Van Jones held down the liberal seat on CNN's now-defunct "Crossfire" show, he went toe-to-toe with conservative former U.S. Representative Newt Gingrich (R).

"We busted it every day until criminal justice came up," said Jones during a session on navigating criminal justice reform at NCSL's Legislative Summit. Gingrich told him he was a Christian and "Where is redemptiion? Where is a second chance? I'm a conservative and I'm offended by what's going on."

To which Jones replied: "Where have you been all my life?"

They teamed to start a bipartisan campaign, "Cut 50" to reduce the prison population by half in every state and passed a dozen prison reformbills.

Now, Jones pairs with another unlikely ally, Mississippi Governor Phil Bryant (R), of whom he says, "I never would have believed a Mississippi governor, as conservative as they come but with a heart as big as his state, could reach across the table and take a courageous stand. I saw with my own eyes the impact of Governor Bryant. I can't tell you how much it means to have a friend, a prayer partner, a counselor."

Both men work from opposite political poles but share a deep conviction that the way America deals with criminal justice is a train wreck that results in too many incarcerations and too little rehabilitation and both leavened their policy prescriptions wiht more than a dollop of faith.

Jones and Bryant supported the First Step Act and Bryant lobbied President Donald Trump to get his backing. Bryant was in the Oval Office when Trump signed the bill earlier this year ("He gave me the pen," Bryant said).

Between 1983 and 2013, according to Pew, Mississippi’s prison population grew by 300 percent to more than 22,400 inmates. "As a former law enforcement officer, I helped put some of them there. I put them in jail because they possessed marijuana in the 1970s. I had to live with that and wanted to do something about it. We all thought we were Serpico but we never thought of the guy I was taking to jail for a packet of marijuana. I prayed about it."

Bryant championed a 2014 reform bill in Mississippi that has reduced state prison expenditures by 40% and cut prison population by 11% in the first year though sentencing and corrections reforms and more alternatives to incarceration. A followup law last year put an end to debtor's prison for failure to pay fines, expanded eligibility for parole, gave judges the power to devitate from mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent habitual offenders and created a Sentence Disparity Task Force. Reforms enacted in 2019 expanded intervention courts, ended driver's license suspension for drug offenses, expanded expungement eligibility and created a presumption that nonviolent offenders will be released while waiting trial.

Jones, who characterized Bryant as a "thermostat" leader who could change the political temperature, asked the governor how he turned "no" votes into "yes" for justice reform in a conservative state: "I used everything I could, fairly and impartially--most of the time," Bryant said wryly. "Sometimes I said, 'I'm looking forward to coming to your district and campaigning and I hope I'll campaign for you.' "

They were joined on stage by four lawmakers who spoke about criminal justice reform in their states.

Florida Senator Jeff P. Brandes (R) focused on preventing juveniles from going to jail by converting some ciriminal offenses to civil citations. "Diversion is such a great tool," he said.

Alaska Senator Shelley Hughes (R) advised states to "know where your starting points are. Our mandatory minimums were already low so we shifted them up." The public, she said, wants to be a welcoming society but also needs to have a sense of justice and that Alaskans felt justice wasn't being served.

Nevada assemblymember Steven J. Yeager (D) said his state was focusing on crisis intervention training for law enforcement officer in the wake of a doubling of police calls for mental health interventions.

Minnesota has examined its rules on solitary confinement, said Representative Nick Zerwas (R), and hired more correctional officers in prisons.

Mark Wolf is the editor the NCSL Blog.

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This blog offers updates on the National Conference of State Legislatures' research and training, the latest on federalism and the state legislative institution, and posts about state legislators and legislative staff. The blog is edited by NCSL staff and written primarily by NCSL's experts on public policy and the state legislative institution.