What do you suppose would happen if you put a mix of Republican and Democratic lawmakers, an African American activist, a spokesman for conservative billionaires, attorneys and an ex-convict who spent 14 years in a cell for a gang-related murder in the same room?
It’s an interesting supposition, and the first thought that might come to mind is — there will be blood.
Actually, it’s quite the opposite for the newly-formed Council on Criminal Justice, which launched last week in Sacramento, its mission being to encourage meaningful criminal-justice reform.
The panel includes former California Gov. Jerry Brown, a Democrat, and Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin, a Republican. It also includes a former police leader in Washington and Philadelphia, a Black Lives Matter organizer and the aforementioned convicted felon. Talk about diversity.
The group's two co-chairs are Koch Industries Senior Vice President Mark Holden, former general counsel for the energy empire of billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch, staunch advocates for conservative causes, and Sally Yates, the Deputy U.S. Attorney General who was fired by President Trump because she defied his executive order banning immigration from some majority Muslim countries.
This diverse mix, part of the 25-member council, will attempt to find some common ground on improving the First Steps Act, an overhaul of the nation’s criminal justice system signed into law last year, after getting bipartisan support in both the House and Senate.
We often chastise Congress for failing to agree on much of anything, so it seems only fair to point out one of the very few policy victories that transcend political partisanship.
The council’s diversity is likely the key to its success. Too often these days diversity spells trouble for logical thinking and decision making, in large part because in too many cases financial concern butts heads with overall fairness.
The group with the premise that there are too many failed programs, mostly because of partisan divisions at the highest levels of government. And the crime-and-punishment process in this country is clearly flawed to the point of failure.
U.S. prisons and jails are overflowing, because America has the planet’s highest incarceration rate, at 724 inmates per 100,000 in population. The United States has 4.4 percent of the world’s population, but houses more than 20 percent of the world’s prisoners.
Bringing it down to the local level, Santa Barbara County Jail in Goleta has suffered chronic overcrowding for years, which is one of the big reasons that the North County Jail should soon be open for business.
That imbalance is something the new Council on Criminal Justice will be looking into, which by nature and inclination will include an examination of racial injustices when it comes to prison sentencing.
Our criminal justice system holds almost 2.3 million people in 1,719 state prisons, 109 federal prisons, 1,772 juvenile correctional facilities, 3,163 local jails, 80 Indian Country jails and military prisons, and the list goes on and on.
Not only are there glaring inequities in our criminal justice system, those imbalances are costing taxpayers a fortune. The average cost to house a prisoner for a year nationwide is just more than $30,000. In California, the annual cost per prisoner is more than $80,000 — money that’s coming out of your pocket.
If this new group can somehow resolve that issue alone, and get Congress to buy in, the Council on Criminal Justice will be more than worth the effort, and a success might just encourage more cooperation between wildly disparate political factions.
We need to truly be the United States of America.