Speakers at Thursday's Bipartisan Summit on Criminal Justice Reform in Washington, D.C. — co-sponsored by the ACLU and Koch Industries—have played it safe, using their time at the podium to decry the country’s incarceration rate in general terms, express support for pending legislation that would make the justice system less punitive toward drug offenders, and marvel at the cooperation on display at this conference between Democrats and Republicans.
But then Cory Booker got onstage with Newt Gingrich and went, to use his phrase, “off-script.” Booker, the junior Democratic senator from New Jersey, made an argument that caused audience members to applaud more loudly than they had all morning: "We need to redefine what is considered violent crime," he said.
Booker then told a story about a man who had served five years in prison for driving the getaway vehicle after his friend held somebody up with a plastic gun. Booker's point was that, even though this person had not done anything violent, his offense was classified as such. There are untold numbers of offenders in that same position, and none of the reform proposals that are currently being discussed on Capitol Hill addresses them.
Booker’s remark cuts right to the central anxiety hanging over the apparent momentum surrounding the criminal justice reform movement: Unless policymakers who have championed leniency toward nonviolent offenders start thinking about violent offenders as well, the country will not be able to achieve any significant reduction in the prison population.
Gingrich, who did not weigh in on Booker's point while they were onstage, told me in an interview afterward that he agrees with him. “There are people who do things that are clearly not violent but who are technically labeled as violent—so you have to ask yourself, what’s the purpose of that? When I worry about violent crime, I worry about someone who has the potential to harm you or me. And those people, I think, should be kept off the street until they’re too old to threaten anybody. And I’m prepared to be very tough with genuinely violent criminals. But I don’t want to have a broad, sweeping series of laws that become felonies that in fact shouldn’t be felonies.”
The idea that the criminal justice system is too tough on violent felons is not something we’ve heard a lot from politicians who have come to the table for prison reform over the past few years. It will be interesting to see if Booker’s attempt to inject the point into today’s high-profile discussion, and a high-profile Republican’s embrace of it, will embolden others to act.