By Thomas H. Little, Ph.D.
SLLF Director of Curriculum Development and Research
Do you recall those times in your life that you were, as my grandfather used to say, “So proud I could bust?” When your son aced that piano recital? When your daughter nailed the three pointer to win the game? When that girl or guy you have loved for so long said “yes”? When you got that hard-earned and well-deserved promotion at work?
I had one of those moments of pride at the SLLF Spring Issues Summit, Criminal Justice Reform Sweeps the States, at Loyola University in New Orleans. The Summit focused on the revolutionary changes taking place in criminal justice across the country. Rather than locking up prisoners and throwing away the keys, liberal and conservative states alike are offering reforms on how, when, and why people are arrested, how they are treated in prison, and what services they are offered as they attempt to re-enter society. As I sat and listened to passionate presenters, reasoned debate and rational questions, I was so proud I could bust.
I was proud of a faculty that included four legislators, three current or former law enforcement officers, a judge, two White House officials, and policy experts from the Brennan Center, the Vera Institute and the Pelican Institute for Public Policy. This faculty was entertaining, engaging, open, articulate and respectful of the varied opinions evident among the participants. They gave us data illuminated with passion, humor and stories that made us recognize and respect the humanity of those in the criminal justice system.
I was proud of our corporate supporters and members of the SLLF Advisory Council, most of whom have no direct professional interest in this topic (beyond the interest we all have in a safe and just society) yet attended the sessions as fully engaged participants. Not only did they faithfully attend the summit, they contributed to the conversation by offering their own questions and perspectives that helped to keep the conversation grounded in reality, limiting our tangents into theory or partisan ideology.
And I was proud of all of us at SLLF for putting together a program that opened some eyes, changed some perspectives and started some much needed conversations across parties, ideologies and geographic regions.
But more than anything, I was proud of the more than forty legislative leaders from thirty-three states who attended this program. They were all there: Republicans and Democrats, liberals and conservatives, young (those millennials!) and old(er) (those boomers!), urban legislators and rural legislators. And despite their differences, for close to two full days of classroom sessions, they all came together—as lawmakers and public servants trying to figure out how best to strengthen our system of justice so that all people are guaranteed their constitutional rights to equal protection under the law.
I listened with pride (and a bit of shock) as liberal legislators agreed that there might be a place for “moral rehabilitation” in their state prisons. I marveled as I heard conservative legislators acknowledge that too many young men of color stock our prisons. And there was virtual unanimity that far too many mentally impaired and drug addicted men and women have been wrongly incarcerated. I smiled to myself as I watched legislators from all corners of the country frantically jotting down notes on practical pre-sentencing reforms, comprehensive re-entry programs and innovative prison reforms.
I watched with pride as these leaders listened intently to Burl Cain, former warden of “Bloody Angola,” talk about holding the hand and recognizing the humanity of a dying death row inmate. And to Police Chief Kenton Buckner of Little Rock, Arkansas who eloquently and passionately talked about the tremendous challenges facing police officers and citizens on the streets of his city and in virtually every city in America. And also to Kentucky Court Officer Tara Blair as she talked about becoming physically ill witnessing a holding pen with more than two hundred inmates caged like animals. I sat in awe as these legislative leaders asked pointed and probing questions of the faculty and of each other in order to find out how to make these reforms work in their states.
Contrary to the gridlock we see in Washington and the circus that is the 2016 Presidential election, this program was a clear demonstration of how government is supposed to work. Lawmakers from across the political, ideological, social and economic spectrum came together and worked with experts and practitioners, seeking new insights and knowledge about what they can do to make life better for the people they are sworn to serve. Policy over party, pragmatism over ideology.
I was so proud I could bust! And I can report that several legislators have already contacted us to say, “I’m introducing a bill to strengthen our criminal justice system based on what I learned at your program.”