By Gabrielle Simeck, ’18

It’s not very often that Koch Industries and the Center for American Progress find common ground. However, the new Coalition for Public Safety suggests that the two organizations may have found an issue over which to unite. Launched on Thursday, February 19, the Coalition for Public Safety brings these two polar opposite organizations together along with a slew of other bipartisan political and financial organizations for the purpose of advocating for criminal justice reform. The bipartisan membership of the coalition includes the American Civil Liberties Union, Americans for Tax Reform, and FreedomWorks.


The coalition emerges from the highly complex political and economic environment of the criminal justice system in the United States. The 2.2 million-person prison population continues to expand and constitute an enormous financial burden to the public. To make matters worse, the criminal justice system is also wracked by issues of civil rights. The dual nature of the problem of criminal justice, however, ties together the political interests of conservatives and liberals. The issue mobilizes both conservatives who are interested in reducing the economic burden of the prison system, as well as liberals who aim to reduce racial inequality through criminal justice reform. Christine Leonard, the coalition director, said in an interview with the Washington Post, “There are so many people doing good work in the criminal justice space, but one of the challenges has been that all of the organizations are working on their own agendas. We’ve really tried to bring more and more folks across the different tables.”


Using the new coalition, the member organizations aim to support emerging criminal justice reform proposals to overhaul the criminal justice system through a broad multi-million dollar advocacy campaign. The Washington Post claims that the coalition “represents an unprecedented bipartisan effort at a federal level to drive criminal justice reform.” The interesting bipartisan dynamic of the coalition turns out to be a great asset in this arena. Due to the variety of different member organizations, the coalition can reach out to both sides of the aisle with legitimate authority.


The Coalition, however, is not the first indication of bi-partisan support for criminal justice reform. In fact, since the early 2000s, many Republican governors have pursued the political tactic “smart-on-crime,” advocating criminal justice reform in order to combat spiraling prison costs which weighed on state budgets. More recently, in 2014, Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ) and Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) co-authored the REDEEM Act, which would have allowed nonviolent offenders to seal their records. This February, Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) and Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) proposed legislation which would allow eligible prisoners to reduce their time and therefore cut prison populations. Perhaps most interestingly, a great number of the potential Republican presidential candidates are in favor of sentencing and criminal justice reform including: Gov. Rick Perry (TX), Gov. Bobby Jindal (LA), Jeb Bush, Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY), and Ted Cruz (R-TX).


The history of bi-partisan support reflects well on the coalition’s ability to contribute to concrete legislative progress. Many Americans are perpetually frustrated by Congress’ inability to overcome the powerful force of polarity. Criminal justice reform potentially represents the chance to bridge party lines and, more importantly, reform the highly dysfunctional and costly U.S. criminal justice system.