Crime brings together unlikely bedfellows

Coalition of political opposites looks to reform criminal justice system

WHAT DO THE liberal Center for American Progress, tea party-infused FreedomWorks, the American Civil Liberties Union, and the ultra-conservative Koch brothers have in common? Not much, but they have banded together in an unlikely alliance to push for reform of the country’s criminal justice system.

Christine Leonard, a former aide to several members of the Massachusetts congressional delegation, is the executive director of the new Washington-based Coalition for Public Safety, the organization formed from this unlikely marriage of ideological opposites. But, she said, the divergent views are a key component to finding solutions to the vexing issues of reducing crime and incarceration while resolving the underlying social problems such as drug addiction that contribute to the social ills.

“It’s a real reflection of the broader aspect of the problem,” said Leonard, who was part of panel at the Massachusetts Criminal Justice Reform Coalition Summit at the University of Massachusetts Boston on Monday. “It was like bringing together dogs and cats who would never agree on anything else. But in that first meeting, there was a lot of consensus around these issues and there was a strong intent to work together.”

The wide-ranging partners were brought together by the Laura and John Arnold Foundation, a Texas-based charity that deals with a variety of social issues. Leonard said having the opposite ends of the political spectrum sitting together to address an issue that affects everyone gives heft to the constituents on both sides of the aisle.

“So far there’s a lot more we agree on than we disagree on,” said Leonard, a Pittsburgh native who got her undergraduate and law degrees in Massachusetts before returning to work in Washington. “Even though people are coming to the table for different reasons and even though they’ve never worked together before, once they come in the same room and talk about the core issues they’re talking about, and solutions they want to see, there’s not a lot of disagreement.”

Leonard said the problems of the criminal justice system, where one in three Americans is affected by a criminal record of their own or of a family member, need serious reform that transcends political differences. She said regardless of whether the reason to support reform is because the cost of prison is too high, as many conservatives believe, or because issues such as drug abuse and addiction and mental illness need clinical not criminal treatment, as many progressives hold, the result benefits both sides.

“I think people are right to want to understand the motives, but at the same time that shouldn’t limit our ability to talk to each other,” Leonard said. “When you find people who are really serious and want to have a meaningful dialogue, that’s a turning point.”

Leonard said the coalition is not focused on “one single silver bullet,” such as eliminating minimum mandatory sentencing, but rather sees a need for an overhaul that requires the concerted efforts of prosecutors, defenders, judges, and politicians. Given the breadth of differences in that group, having a coalition that includes those from the left and right will work to everyone’s benefits, she said.

“If you’ve got this level of diverse funders involved—hopefully theyre hearing the concerns we’re talking about,” said Leonard. “People who may not know much about this [issue] may pay attention because of the unlikely bedfellows.”