NYT - A.C.L.U. in $50 Million Push to Reduce Jail Sentences | ACLU News Release - ACLU Awarded $50 Million by Open Society Foundations to End Mass Incarceration

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    NYT - A.C.L.U. in $50 Million Push to Reduce Jail Sentences
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    ACLU - ACLU Awarded $50 Million by Open Society Foundations to End Mass Incarceration
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NOV. 7, 2014 | New York Times

A.C.L.U. in $50 Million Push to Reduce Jail Sentences

With a $50 million foundation grant, the largest in its history, the American Civil Liberties Union plans to mount an eight-year political campaign across the country to make a change of criminal justice policies a key issue in local, state and national elections.

The goal of the campaign, financed by George Soros’s Open Society Foundations, is to slash an incarceration rate that has tripled since 1980. There are currently some 2.2 million prisoners in the United States.

The campaign aims to translate into state and federal policy a growing belief among many scholars, as well as of a coalition of liberal, conservative and libertarian political leaders, that the tough-on-crime policies of recent decades have become costly and counterproductive.

In that view, widespread drug arrests and severe mandatory sentences are doing more to damage poor communities, especially African-American ones, than to prevent crime, and building ever more prisons that mostly turn out repeat offenders is a bad investment.

The campaign is likely to face strong opposition from some law enforcement officials, prosecutor groups and conservative experts who argue that tough sentencing policies have played an important role in driving down crime rates. The Republican electoral victories this week could also stiffen resistance to sweeping change.

The grant is going to the political arm of the A.C.L.U., which has far more leeway to lobby for laws, run ads on television and finance political action committees to promote candidates than the group’s larger, traditional branch, which relies more on litigation. As a result, the money is not tax-deductible.

While the A.C.L.U. has often been associated with liberal causes like ending the death penalty and promoting same-sex marriage, Anthony D. Romero, the group’s executive director, said the organization was building ties with conservative leaders promoting alternatives to incarceration and would not hesitate to aid Republican candidates who support needed steps.

“I think criminal justice reform is one of the few issues where you can break through the partisan gridlock,” Mr. Romero said, adding that the group would seek out Republican lobbying firms to help reach legislators.

In the latest example of converging views, conservatives including Newt Gingrich and B. Wayne Hughes Jr., a Christian philanthropist, joined the Soros-led foundation and the A.C.L.U. in support of Proposition 47, a California ballot measure to redefine many lower-level felonies, including possession for personal use of hard drugs, as misdemeanors. The change, which passed by a wide margin on Tuesday, is expected to keep tens of thousands of offenders out of prison and save the state hundreds of millions of dollars each year.

The Koch brothers, major funders of conservative causes and candidates, have joined in. Koch Industries recently gave a grant “of significant six figures” to the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers to support the defense of indigents, said Mark Holden, senior vice president and general counsel at Koch Industries.

“Whether the human cost or the societal cost, what we’re doing in the criminal justice system isn’t working,” Mr. Holden said. “We’re finding common ground with people with different political affiliations,” he said, praising the advocacy work of the A.C.L.U. in this field.

The A.C.L.U. campaign will be directed by Alison Holcomb, who led the effort in Washington State to legalize marijuana.

The group plans to use ads to insert issues like drug policy, mandatory sentences and prison re-entry into early primary states in the presidential elections, such as Iowa and New Hampshire, and then in key battlegrounds like Pennsylvania and Florida, Mr. Romero said.

It will also develop a state-by-state database describing who is in prison for what crimes and then target local politicians and prosecutors who promote what Mr. Romero called “overincarceration.”

Mr. Romero said the goal of the campaign was to reduce incarceration by 50 percent in eight years.

Todd R. Clear, a criminologist and the provost of Rutgers University-Newark, said he agreed that the time was right for a major shift in justice policies. Efforts to reduce probation revocations and to lighten sentences, especially for nonviolent crimes, have already brought reductions or headed off growth in prisoner numbers in a number of states, he noted, while the federal government is reducing penalties for some drug crimes, although bipartisan bills that would overhaul federal sentencing did not pass this year.

But he cautioned that to achieve a decline anywhere near as steep as that proposed by the A.C.L.U., far more politically contentious changes would be necessary.

“We’ll have to make sentencing reforms for violent crime, too,” he said, including major changes in drug laws and the multidecade sentences often imposed on violent or repeat offenders.

Mr. Soros and the Open Society Foundations have long promoted these kinds of changes in American criminal policies, investing roughly $175 million in them since 2004, plus an additional $62.5 million aimed at legalizing marijuana and reducing drug penalties.

“I think you see a growing consensus that the criminal justice system in America is broken and this is a time to try new approaches,” said Christopher Stone, president of the Open Society Foundations and a criminal justice expert, explaining why the group had made the large grant to the A.C.L.U. at this time.

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November 07, 2014 | via PR Web

ACLU Awarded $50 Million by Open Society Foundations to End Mass Incarceration
The Open Society Foundations has given a grant of $50 million to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) in support of its nationwide campaign to cut the U.S. prison population in half by 2020, the most ambitious effort to end mass incarceration in American history.

State-based Campaigns to Significantly Reduce Prison Population Will Focus on Presidential Battleground States

The Open Society Foundations today awarded a grant of $50 million to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) in support of its nationwide campaign to end mass incarceration. The campaign seeks to reform criminal justice policies that have increased incarceration rates dramatically during a period of declining crime –and exacerbated racial disparities. The nation's adult jail and prison population numbers over 2.2 million with one in 100 adults behind bars, the highest incarceration rate in the world. The ACLU intends to cut that number in half by 2020, with the most ambitious effort to end mass incarceration in American history.

"Reducing our nation's prison population by 50 percent may sound like a lofty goal. But Americans are recognizing that we can't arrest our way out of every social problem and, in fact, the overuse of our criminal justice system has been making matters worse," said ACLU Executive Director Anthony D. Romero. "Elected officials on both sides of the aisle now see clearly the disastrous results of the 'tough on crime' politics of the 80s and 90s. The ACLU is partnering with allies across the entire political spectrum to take a new approach and get the work done."

"There are few organizations in the United States in such close alignment with our values and criminal justice reform goals as the ACLU," said Christopher Stone, President of the Open Society Foundations. "We are confident that our support of the already advanced state-level ACLU operations can truly transform thinking about public safety, move progressive and innovative legislation forward, and restore the trust of communities hit hardest by the overuse and abuse of our criminal justice system."

While the ACLU's most impactful work has typically been through litigation, this campaign signals a sea change for an organization with more than one million members and supporters, staffed state-based affiliates, and formidable legal muscle. It will build on the momentum created by state and national advocates, and on the analysis of the National Academy of Sciences, which found that in order to significantly lower prison rates, drug enforcement and sentencing laws should be revised. And, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder has strongly endorsed reduced sentences for certain non-violent drug offenses, which would cut average sentences for federal drug offenses by 11 months.

In accepting the grant from OSF, Romero outlined immediate next steps the ACLU will take:

-- Bring transparency to the current crisis by assembling and disclosing state and local data around who is behind bars, for how long, and for what offenses
-- Select 3 to 5 key states for 2016 action – those with the largest prison populations, most egregious sentencing, and a history of playing a consequential role in the election of the next president
-- Build state capacity in early primary and battleground states such as Florida, Iowa, New Hampshire, and Colorado.

The announcement of increased funding for mass incarceration reform comes just days after a ballot measure – Proposition 47 – passed by an overwhelming 58% majority in California. The measure, which the ACLU aided with a $3.5 million investment, lowers personal drug use and small-scale property crimes from felonies to misdemeanors, and distributes the criminal justice savings to substance abuse and mental health treatment, anti-truancy programs, and victims' services. Approximately 15,000 to 20,000 people will likely be eligible for re-sentencing and release from either state prison or county jail.

Former speaker of the House of Representatives Newt Gingrich, Senator Rand Paul, and California businessman B. Wayne Hughes, Jr. also supported Prop. 47. The ACLU intends to tap into this type of bipartisan support with its broader campaign against mass incarceration, using this donation as a primer for increased political action on both the state and national level.

Romero also announced that Alison Holcomb, architect of the ACLU of Washington's marijuana legislation, who directed the statewide campaign to pass it, will serve as the national director of the ACLU Campaign to End Mass Incarceration. Holcomb was also involved in the state legislature's passage of a 911 Good Samaritan drug overdose prevention bill and the launch of Seattle and King County's innovative pre-booking diversion program, Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD).

"We've had 40 years of widening the criminal justice net too far and have relied too heavily on punishment to address social and health problems," Holcomb said. "We've drained coffers and cut people off from jobs, housing, and family stability – the very things they need to succeed in society."

Romero concludes: "This exceptionally generous grant from the Open Society Foundations allows us and our partners to break the cycle that has destroyed families and devastated communities, by righting this source of injustice and ending mass incarceration."
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For more information on ACLU's Campaign to End Mass Incarceration, go to:
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This press release is available here:
CONTACT: Alexandra Ringe, 212-549-2582, aringe(at)aclu.org, media(at)aclu.org

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Steve Hall
The StandDown Texas Project
PO Box 13475
Austin, TX 78711

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