Looking out over the lunch crowd packed into a Marriott hotel ballroom in Washington, D.C., on Thursday, David Simon, the creator of The Wire, must have felt a touch of the surreal.
"When I first started arguing against the drug war, you couldn’t have filled a room this large at an event like this," Simon said from the stage. "There’d have been two tables, one filled with liberal Democrats and another with people to the left of them, and maybe William F. Buckley would have been by himself, not associating with anyone."
Simon was addressing the Bipartisan Summit on Criminal Justice Reform, a conference that featured such figures as U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, the Labor Secretary Tom Perez, Gov. Nathan Deal of Georgia, and Sen. Cory Booker (D., N.J.).
Video messages were piped in from Republican lawmakers such as Sen. Mike Lee (R., Utah) and Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R., Va.), the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, and from Govs. Rick Perry and John Kasich. Matt Kibbe, the president of the Tea Party-aligned group FreedomWorks, was there, as was Mark Holden, Koch Industries’ point man on criminal justice issues.
Simon was followed on stage by Piper Kerman, the author of Orange is the New Black, and at the end of the day, the summit screened a video of President Obama sitting down with Simon to talk about The Wire.
The summit was organized by Van Jones, the former Obama administration official and civil rights activist, and Newt Gingrich. "This thing has turned into Woodstock for criminal justice," Jones said in a conference call a day before the summit. "People are going to look at photographs of this and swear it was photoshopped."
Jones said organizers originally planned on a mere four-hour event, but by the time the schedule was finalized, it stretched from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. The crowded schedule was as much a testament to the newfound momentum behind criminal justice reform as it was to Jones and Gingrich’s considerable networking prowess and gift of gab.
Over the past few years, liberal groups aiming to overhaul the U.S. criminal justice system—which they say is outmoded and inhumane—have been joined by conservative groups, including the dreaded Koch brothers, who argue that it is outrageously expensive and at odds with their views about individual liberty.
Much of the media coverage of the criminal justice reform movement has focused on the odd-couple optics of die-hard conservatives teaming up with avowed liberals, and it is true that the novelty of seeing Rep. Elijah Cummings (D., Md.) standing in front of a podium emblazoned with "Koch Industries" never quite wears off.
But now, with the wind at its back, the coalition is facing the question of whether, even with all this recent bipartisan kumbaya, it can get anything done.
States, both red and blue, have enacted sweeping prison reforms and rolled back strict sentencing laws, but the federal system has lagged far behind, and any possible reform will have to wind its way through a gridlocked Congress.
Speaking to a group of reporters in the hall outside the conference, Jones and Gingrich both acknowledged that the window for passing any meaningful reform bill will likely close by 2016, when election fever takes over Capitol Hill.
Bipartisan groups of senators and House members have introduced a slate of criminal justice bills this session. Mike Lee and Rep. Raul Labrador (R., Idaho) introduced the Smarter Sentencing Act of 2015 in the Senate and House, which would cut mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug offenders in half.
Booker and Sen. Rand Paul (R., Ky.) reintroduced a bill earlier this month, the REDEEM Act, which would allow non-violent offenders to have their records sealed.
Another bill introduced by Sens. John Cornyn (R., Texas) and Sheldon Whitehouse (D., R.I.) would allow federal prisoners to trim their sentences by attending anti-recidivism programs. The Cornyn-Whitehouse bill is the least sweeping but also the one considered the most likely to pass.
But so far none of these bills has made it to, much less through, committee.
Goodlatte’s video appearance at the summit is a good sign for reformers, since he controls the flow of any would-be criminal justice bills through the House.
"There is a growing consensus across the political spectrum that our criminal justice system is in need of reform," Goodlatte said in his video statement. "The issue of over-criminalization is an issue of liberty. We must work together to improve our criminal justice system so that it works fairly and efficiently and reduces crime across the United States."
However, on the Senate side Sen. Chuck Grassley (R., Iowa), the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee and an old-school law-and-order conservative, has expressed deep concerns with plans to cut mandatory minimum sentences.
In a floor statement earlier this month, Grassley said the bills "are dangerous and poorly considered proposals to change the criminal justice system that are divisive, are not based on reality, and will never become law.
"There are also problems in the criminal justice system that are clear, widely recognized, have serious consequences, and can be the subject of effective bipartisan legislative efforts," Grassley said. "I will do what I can to make sure the Senate Judiciary Committee devotes its energies to the second category."
Gingrich said he is confident that Grassley can be assuaged, and that the current alliance between the younger, libertarian wing of the Republican caucus and progressive Democrats will continue to widen. "If you build a big enough bipartisan majority in the Senate, it’s going to pass," Gingrich said.
Kibbe said he has talked with tea party activists on the ground in Iowa who plan on putting pressure on Grassley. "Washington and politics are a lagging indicator of social change," Kibbe said. "Washington will do something if Americans insist they do something."
For the moment, criminal justice reform advocates, who spent the last three decades mostly toiling in obscurity for precious few gains, have the ears of both the powerful inside Washington, the media, and much of the public. Their fear is their moment will pass without reform, and they’ll be in the same spot they used to be: the outside.
Bernie Kerik, a former NYPD commissioner who became a prison reform advocate after being sent to prison himself, laid it out in blunt terms for the audience.
"If there’s not change, here’s what going to happen," Kerik said. "Twenty years from now, maybe not you but people like you, will be sitting in rooms just like this doing the same damn thing."