Prison reform isn’t a warm and fuzzy topic, but it has brought together conservatives and liberals like few other issues in recent years.

 

Imagine these people working together: Conservative political insider Newt Gingrich, the libertarian Koch brothers, consumer guru Clark Howard and the liberal-leaning folks from the ACLU.


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Yet those people will be represented Wednesday and Thursday in Jacksonville at a two-day summit, Operation Reform, that touts criminal justice reform as its mission.

And unlike the turmoil that too often accompanies meetings of liberals, conservatives and people of other persuasions, the atmosphere at this summit is likely to be collegial.

Why? Because in this coming together, all parties are working hard on an identical goal — reform of the world’s largest criminal justice system.

BIPARTISANSHIP ESSENTIAL

The Operation Reform summit, which will be held at the downtown Hyatt, is placing Jacksonville on a national stage as reformers from around the country meet to discover what does — and what doesn’t — work.

It’s largely the brainchild of Kevin Gay, president of Jacksonville’s Operation New Hope, which does a tremendous job of re-integrating ex-offenders into the community. A mere 10 percent of the ex-offenders who go through New Hope’s jobs programs re-commit.

This summit is the latest in a series of high-level meetings around the country where participants are calling for a new take on criminal justice.

There’s absolute consensus on the notion that what we have now isn’t working. And there’s also absolute consensus on the fact that everyone must work together to find a solution.

There’s no dissent — from anyone.

In fact, Gingrich, although not in town for the summit, recorded a special video congratulating summit participants on their collegial approach to criminal justice reform.

“Thank you for working together,” he says, “for reaching beyond partisanship and for seeking solutions.”

It’s a sentiment reiterated by representatives of the Charles Koch Institute, who are in attendance at the summit. In fact, the very bipartisan nature of the issue will elevate discussion to a more productive level.

“These two perspectives complement each other,” says Vikrant Reddy, senior research fellow at the institute. “They both reinvigorate our goal.”

SAME ENDS SOUGHT

Over the next two days, representatives from the judiciary, the White House, the media, the clergy, social service organizations, law enforcement, the public and other sectors of the community will be putting their heads together around Jacksonville conference tables to puzzle out new angles on criminal justice.

There isn’t, after all, much difference in what everyone wants to see occur.

Liberal or conservative or libertarian, all sides emphasize that the three most important criteria involved in criminal justice reform are ensuring public safety, preserving human potential and decreasing the excessive costs of today’s system.

Sounds like liberal propaganda?

Not at all, the Koch Institute’s Reddy says. Everyone needs to be intimately — and personally — concerned with how criminal justice is handled.

“Ninety-five percent of people who go into prison come out. The moment they come out of prison they go into the community, and that means they live next door to you and me.”

The goal that Reddy, Gingrich and others hope to reach involves a complete reformation of the criminal justice system — from a refiguring of sentencing guidelines to latching onto strategies that make an ex-offender succeed once released.

CRITICAL FOR SOCIETY

As it stands today, some 600,000 ex-offenders are released onto America’s streets each year. Of those, national data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics shows that 68 percent are re-arrested within three years and 76 percent are re-arrested within five years.

That’s unacceptable. It obviously impacts public safety.

A glance at Operation New Hope’s success underscores the fact that with help, ex-offenders are very capable of becoming productive citizens.

And it’s financially taxing society. It costs approximately $14,000 per year to incarcerate a single inmate but there may be considerably less expensive ways of containing crime while ensuring public safety. Consider, for example, that is costs only $1,095 annually to place an individual on supervised probation.

The country needs a totally fresh way to look at criminal justice. And it needs to take advantage of what multiple perspectives have to offer.