Living Room Conversations & Criminal Justice Reform

by Joan Blades

Critics of dialogue often ask, "what's the point of talking?  It's not like it's going to change anything, right?"

In January of 2013, a Living Room Conversation took place between Joan Blades, co-founder of MoveOn and Mark Meckler co-founder of Tea Party Patriots.  After being surprised to discover how much they all agreed about criminal justice reform, Joan and Living Room Conversations partners decided to make this topic a priority in future efforts.   

Front page coverage of the conversation between Joan and Mark led to a grant from California Endowment to organize Living Room Conversations about realignment (a change in CA prison policy that keeps non-serious offenders in county)  and community safety.  Those California conversations have prompted further conversations in Portland and Kansas City.  

In 2013, Joan and Mark were invited to speak together on stage at Citizens University and Harvard Kennedy School - a clip of the Citizens University presentation was shared widely on Upworthy.

Joan wrote op-eds  about criminal justice reform with Grover Norquist and Matt Kibbe  2014.  As the Living Room Conversations project got more and more attention, so did criminal justice reform - including a World Affairs Forum presentation that highlighted Living Room Conversations' contribution to the the new momentum for criminal justice reform.  

In October of 2014, these efforts led to Joan and Debilyn Molineaux helping convene a meeting of leaders in DC on the left and right,  from inside and outside D.C., to talk about opportunities to work together to achieve meaningful progress on criminal justice issues where we already have fundamental agreement. That meeting helped inspire the creation of the cross-partisan Coalition For Safety and Justice - bringing together the Center for American Progress, Koch Industries, the American Civil Liberties Union, Americans for Tax Reform, FreedomWorks and others in the unlikeliest of alliances.

In December civil rights activist Van Jones co-hosted an event for Living Room Conversations focusing on criminal justice reform.  He shared details about his new partnership with Newt Gingrich to form #Cut50, aimed at reducing the prison population. This April Van and Newt hosted a bi-partisan summit in D.C. on reducing the prison population.  They had a fabulous turnout!

It is increasingly evident that criminal Justice Reform has reached a new place in the public consciousness. In May the NY Times had front page reports of presidential candidates on the right and left proposing to reform our system because there are too many people in our prisons and our drug policy is not working.  Culture leaders like John Oliver and John Stewart recently eviscerated civil asset forfeiture laws and incarceration that is caused by poverty rather than breaking criminal laws.  And leaders in Texas and Georgia now brag about reducing their prison populations.  Laws and enforcement practices are beginning to change and prison populations are declining.

So maybe there's a point in talking after all?