Liberals and Libertarians Are Coming Together to Fix the US Criminal Justice System

The outside view of a tower and wire fence of a US Criminal Justice system's building

In a rare display of unity across ideological lines, an unlikely coalition is forming to combat some of the most abhorrent aspects of the American legal system. 

Last week, the Center for American Progress and Koch Industries, the massive corporation owned by the conservative/libertarian Koch brothers, announced they were teaming up to launch a new initiative to fight for criminal justice reform.

"The coalition plans a multimillion-dollar campaign on behalf of emerging proposals to reduce prison populations, overhaul sentencing, reduce recidivism and take on similar initiatives," the New York Times reported. Dubbed the Coalition for Public Safety, the alliance aims to shape public opinion and ultimately public policy through research and educational initiatives.

CAP and the Kochs disagree on many, if not most, other policy areas. But the abuses and dysfunctions of the criminal justice system have offered something for everyone to loathe. The killings of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and Eric Garner in Staten Island, New York, at the hands of police brought the issue of criminal justice reform into the public consciousness. The inhumane brutality of jails like New York City's Rikers Island and the spiraling costs of locking up millions of Americans has fueled outrage from every ideological direction. The significant overlap among those of differing political persuasions means that there is a real chance for a much-needed overhaul of how the U.S. prosecutes and punishes its citizens.

An emerging consensus: The coalition follows several recent bipartisan legislative efforts to reform the nation's criminal justice system. The New York Times cited the efforts of Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) to help nonviolent offenders seal their records. Paul also recently teamed up with Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) to write legislation designed to give judges more leniency when handing down sentences for drug offenses. Booker told the Huffington Post this week that the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) is "remarkably open to many aspects of criminal justice reform." Sens. Mike Lee (R-Utah) and Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) recently reintroduced legislation that would reform mandatory minimum sentencing requirements for nonviolent drug offenders.

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The U.S. criminal justice system has become particularly adept at imprisoning large numbers of people over the past few decades. The war on drugs and the tough-on-crime hysteria of the 1980s spawned a range of policies like mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenders that have made it incredibly easy to lock people up for long periods of time.

As a result, the United States currently boasts the highest incarceration rate in the world, at over 700 inmates per 100,000 people. With 5% of the world's population, the U.S. houses 25% of the world's prisoners. Nearly half the inmates in federal prison are serving time for drug crimes. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, one out of every 35 Americans was under "correctional supervision," meaning imprisoned, on probation or on parole in 2013.

Conservatives are growing particularly uneasy with the heavy costs of imprisoning large swathes of Americans. On average across 40 states, each of those prisoners costs taxpayers over $30,000, according to the Vera Institute of Justice.

That number doesn't include the staggering social and economic costs of a growing population of ex-cons. More than half of prisoners are parents of children under 18, which means dislocated families and a concomitantly higher chance of the children facing later behavioral problems. Economically, mass incarceration has created an underclass of ex-prisoners who face significant barriers to reentry into the labor market. According to the Center for Economic and Policy Research, these barriers have resulted in high unemployment rates and a loss of economic output across the economy. The Wall Street Journal also notes that high incarceration rates have made it exceedingly difficult and expensive for employers to hire new employees.

The prospects for change: Given the widespread injustice and costs of our present system, the need for substantive reform is pressing. But will alliances like the CAP-Koch group work? Some, like Harper's Michael Ames, have a pessimistic outlook, arguing that the structural features of the current justice system make any effective change highly unlikely, regardless of the strength and unity of political coalitions.

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The recent history of past ideological alliances also doesn't inspire much optimism. It wasn't so long ago that "liberaltarianism," a movement to emphasize areas of consensus between liberals and libertarians, was considered by many of its advocates to be the antidote to toxic partisanship and George W. Bush-era encroachments on civil liberties. Yet this fusion floundered as President Barack Obama came to office and proved to be less than enthusiastic about adopting the movement's ideas.

But there are those who think the recent moves to find the common ground between conservatives, liberals and libertarians will be more successful than those in the past – perhaps because of the light shone on the current system after high-profile incidents like Eric Garner's death.

One such optimist is inveterate political outsider Ralph Nader. In his most recent book Unstoppable: The Emerging Left-Right Alliance to Dismantle the Corporate State, Nader argues that the time is ripe for a united ideological front against abuses of state power from civil liberties to crony capitalist economic policies.

If current demographic and polling data tell us anything, it's that the political independence among millennial voters and the steady decline of party loyalty hold out the promise of nonpartisan political action against systemic abuses. It has arguably been the deterioration of a tired left-right dichotomy in the imaginations of the young that has opened up the possibility of strategic policy coalitions like CAP-Koch, and Nader argues that it is only through such coalitions that meaningful reform is even remotely possible.

The road ahead: Hopefully the CAP-Koch alliance and the moves in Congress do more than shift the policy discourse surrounding criminal justice reform. They have the chance to actually create some much-needed structural change. If anything, their success would galvanize future left-right alliances to undermine policies that many — conservatives, libertarians, liberals and everyone in between — find disturbing. Because if there's one thing the Obama presidency has shown us, it's that a partisan faith in our elected officials alone doesn't hold much hope for change.