National leaders start group for bipartisan criminal justice reform

An outgrowth of the First Steps Act, the group contains an array of leaders from across the political spectrum. It will seek consensus recommendations for public safety and justice reform.

José Luis Villegas/The Sacramento Bee/AP
California Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye addresses the Legislature at the California State Capitol in Sacramento, California, March 19, 2012. Ms. Cantil-Sakauye joins 24 others on the board of trustees for a bipartisan criminal justice reform group.

A new criminal justice reform group launching Tuesday brings together Democratic and Republican governors, a Black Lives Matter organizer, and a Koch Industries vice president in an unlikely collaboration aimed at harnessing momentum following a bipartisan overhaul last year.

Culled by veteran criminal justice policy expert Adam Gelb, the Council on Criminal Justice includes former California Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown and Kentucky Republican Gov. Matt Bevin. It also has Charles Ramsey, a former police leader in Washington and Philadelphia, and Black Lives Matter lead organizer DeRay Mckesson.

Tying it all together are the group's two co-chairs: Koch Industries Vice President Mark Holden, general counsel for the Kansas-based energy conglomerate of billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch, who advocate for conservative causes, and Sally Yates, the former Deputy U.S. Attorney General who was fired by President Donald Trump after she refused to defend his executive order banning immigration from some majority Muslim countries.

"It's one of the few issues in which you do find some bipartisan consensus these days," Ms. Yates said about criminal justice reform in an interview. "We need to latch on to that and to latch on to this moment in time to be able to drive that forward."

The council wants to raise $25 million over five years to fulfill its mission. The group already has a $2 million first-year budget from donors, including HBO, the Ford Foundation, Arnold Ventures, the H.F. Guggenheim Foundation, the Joyce Foundation, the New York Community Trust, and the Malcolm Hewitt Wiener Foundation.

Others spanning the political spectrum on the council's 25-member board of trustees include CNN host and political commentator Van Jones, who heads the REFORM Alliance; California Supreme Court Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye, who gave up her Republican Party affiliation last year; and Philadelphia's former Democratic mayor, Michael Nutter.

Trustees and a 16-member board of directors will pick research topics and assign task forces to generate reports. But the trustees and directors won't sign off on those reports. The first task force, led by Republican former Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal, aims to find consensus steps that a politically divided federal government can quickly take to improve public safety and the justice system.

The trustees and directors serve three-year terms but are lifetime council members, as is Mr. Deal. The directors are choosing about 100 more lifetime members this summer.

The group is an outgrowth of the federal First Steps Act, a major criminal justice overhaul that Trump signed into law after it passed Congress with bipartisan support. It seeks to harness energies from both sides of the aisle, bringing together people motivated by finances and fairness.

The trustees include Eddie Bocanegra, who spent 14 years in prison for a gang-related murder only to go on and earn a degree from the prestigious University of Chicago. He is now senior director of READI Chicago, which seeks to help men impacted by gun violence.

"Often people like myself with my background are excluded from these types of councils or meetings," Mr. Bocanegra said.

Mr. Holden, the vice president of Koch Industries, worked as a guard at a Massachusetts jail when he was in college, where he said he witnessed people with mental illness being "warehoused."

"From my perspective, there are a lot of failed government programs. This is the ultimate failed big government program that literally destroys lives and wastes money," he said.

The council has two initial research projects underway, with reports expected later this year.

One is exploring incarceration trends by race and gender. The other is examining fallout from the 1994 Crime Bill passed under former Democratic President Bill Clinton. The second topic is politically fraught because the measure was crafted in large part by then-Sen. Joe Biden, who led the Senate Judiciary Committee at the time and now is seeking the Democratic nomination for president along with Sen. Bernie Sanders, who voted for it.

After decades of dividing state and federal policymakers, the criminal justice field seems ripe for consensus, said Mr. Gelb, the council's chief executive. He previously led the Pew Charitable Trusts' Public Safety Performance Project, which researched and helped states with sentencing reforms, and once worked with Biden's committee on the 1994 Crime Bill.

This story was reported by The Associated Press 

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