“People think that throwing people in prison makes us safer. And in fact, what we’ve found is that it does just the opposite.”
Where have you heard this before? Oh, right, Karol Mason, president of John Jay College of Criminal Justice, was on the podcast this summer saying pretty much the same thing. But that sentiment is to be expected from a former Justice Department official who served under President Barack Obama. Not from Holly Harris, former general counsel to the Kentucky Republican Party and current executive director of the Justice Action Network, a three-year-old organization coming at criminal-justice reform from the political right.
“What’s happening is, the low-level nonviolent offenders are coming out worse off than they were when they came in,” said Harris in the latest episode of “Cape Up.” She has been very active in trying to change state laws and federal laws that have exacerbated the problems they were hoped to correct. And she wasn’t shy about pointing a finger at politicians clinging to an outdated view of crime-fighting.
“There is a certain faction that still believes that we should just lock them up and throw away the key. And what’s so interesting to me, and we’re seeing this at the federal level too, with opponents of the federal legislation, they keep citing to these terrible anecdotes of these individuals who have gotten out of prison and done something terrible. And they’re indicting themselves because, of course, these things are happening under the current regime,” Harris explained. “We’ve changed our cellphones, we’ve updated our technology, we’ve updated our hairstyles, thank God. But what we’re not gonna update our sentencing laws that we now know make us less safe? … Every single American family has had some sort of interaction with the justice system, and most of them believe that it needs significant transformational change.”
And just like Mason, who told me that criminal-justice reform is “not a conservative issue. It’s not a liberal issue. People realize it’s a people issue,” Harris insists that her goals are not a partisan issue. “Republicans and Democrats got us into this mess, and Republicans and Democrats are gonna have to get us out of it,” said Harris, who has talked with President Trump during his campaign and Jared Kushner in the White House about criminal-justice reform.
“I was pleasantly surprised with his level of policy expertise on these issues,” Harris said about Kushner. And Trump? “The president has come around certainly since a lot of the lock-him-up-and-throw-away-the-key rhetoric from the campaign trail … If you want to be tough on crime, and I think the president is now seeing this, you want to be tough on crime reform, is where it’s at.” She thinks the legislation that the White House and Congress have been negotiating “is a really good bill that I think can get the consensus, bipartisan support, that’s necessary to be passed.”
Listen to the podcast to hear Harris excoriate Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) for his incendiary remarks about criminal-justice reform. And she was none too pleased with the statement released by the Justice Department after an August meeting at the White House that contradicted what most participants thought had happened.
“It was the most outrageous, embarrassing statement,” Harris told me. “The Department of Justice does not exist on an island. These individuals have not been elected to pass legislation or oppose legislation … these individuals serve at the pleasure of the president and should be supporting what the president says on policy.”
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