Jailbreak!

Article excerpt

Byline: Andrew Romano

The odd alliance changing the way we think about crime.

Tea party leaders tend not to break bread with black liberals, media centrists, and conservative plutocrats for a reason: they rarely agree on much. But by the time Mark Meckler arrived in Austin, Texas, on Feb. 9, he was fed up with being a Tea Party bigwig. He was ready for something different.

Like a dinner at Vespaio Ristorante with civil-rights activist Benjamin Chavis, MSNBC host Dylan Ratigan, and Texas oilman Tim Dunn.

The topic of conversation wasn't Obamacare or the national debt or any of the other things that Meckler--who was about to quit the Tea Party Patriots, a group he'd cofounded in 2009--had already spent plenty of time obsessing over. Instead, it was a subject that Tea Partiers usually ignore: criminal-justice reform.

Of all the problems in America today, none is both as obvious and as overlooked as the colossal human catastrophe that is our criminal-justice system. Prisons are overflowing. The government is broke. Communities are being destroyed. And yet the country's cowed, uncreative politicians are still stuck in lock-'em-up mode: a stale ideology that demands stricter drug laws, tougher policing, and more incarceration, then tars every dissenter as "soft on crime." As a result, the U.S. is now paying $200 billion a year, according to the late Harvard criminal-justice scholar William Stuntz, to arrest, try, and incarcerate nearly 25 percent of the world's prisoners, even though it's home to only 5 percent of the world's inhabitants. Crack use may have subsided, violent crime may have plummeted, and so-called superpredators may have gone the way of Bigfoot. But that hasn't stopped us from separating millions of disproportionately poor, disproportionately black men from their families and communities and consigning them to a vicious cycle of stigmatization and recidivism instead.

Meckler, Chavis, Ratigan, and Dunn had come to Austin in search of a better way. Their guide was David Kennedy, a criminologist at John Jay College in New York. Over margherita pies, Kennedy began to tell the group about his innovative Ceasefire approach to crime control: a cheaper, more stripped-down, post-War-on-Drugs policing methodology that has dramatically lowered the homicide rate in some of America's most dangerous cities.

Meckler was energized. This was exactly the sort of second act he had in mind--a proven, nonideological way to remove "the heavy hand of the state," he tells Newsweek, "and give these communities the freedom to govern themselves."

And so after four hours at Vespaio, Meckler and the others had agreed to form a new alliance. Their goal: to take Kennedy's methods national. "It was a meeting of the minds, and of what are usually opposing cultures, that really represents the larger evolution going on right now," Kennedy says. "I was truly amazed."

By finding common ground on the unlikeliest of issues, could a Tea Party leader and a liberal academic actually help us overcome our criminal-justice impasse? One rustic Italian dinner does not, of course, a revolution make. But Kennedy is right: there is a "larger evolution going on right now." It's a transformation that is being fueled in part by penny-pinching, small-government conservatives like Meckler--conservatives who are realizing that it's far too invasive, expensive, and destructive to continue incarcerating every wrongdoer for every infraction. And because conservative activists don't have to tiptoe through the toxic crime debate like their office-seeking counterparts--who increasingly take their cues from the grassroots anyway--Kennedy & Co. are starting to believe that a groundswell among Meckler types could be the thing that finally gets criminal-justice reform off the ground.

As the son of an LAPD reserve policewoman turned Nevada County, Calif., corrections officer, Meckler was always primed to be skeptical of the GOP's tough-on-crime talking points. …