WASHINGTON — It's not too often that a socially conservative senator praises the work of President Barack Obama and the work of a liberal senator, but Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, did just that on Thursday morning.
While there are many partisan differences at play in Washington and in state capitals around the country that many Americans feel are dividing the country, one issue that both Democrats and Republicans are increasingly coming to an agreement on is the call to reform prison and criminal justice systems across the country.
Two of the leading voices on justice and prison reform in the United States Congress are Lee and Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., whom each have their own reasons why they are passionate about reforming the United State's unjust federal criminal justice system.
Speaking as panelists during Google's first-ever summit on justice reform held at the tech company's office in Washington D.C., Lee and Booker explained why there is such a dire need for criminal justice and sentencing reform in America and why they have become so passionate about the issue.
Lee told the audience that his reason for becoming so active in criminal justice reform is because of the unfair sentencing laws that he came across during his time as a federal prosecutor — laws that he says are "unreasonably harsh" and "absolutely counter intuitive."
Lee recalled one instance he came across when a man who was busted for selling three dime bags of marijuana (a very small amount) and charged for having a gun that he didn't brandish or use was sentenced to 55 years in prison.
"The district judge imposing the sentence in that case ... took the unusual step issuing an opinion disagreeing with the sentence that he was about to impose, saying there are rapists and terrorists and arsonists and bank robbers who get convicted and sentenced to far less than this," Lee stated. "This was a young man in his mid-20s and the judge said 'This makes no sense, only Congress can change this law. I am a judge and powerless to do it. Only Congress can fix it.'"
After Lee arrived in the Senate in 2011, he didn't forget the judge's words.
"When I got elected to the United States Senate, those words were still echoing in my head and I started looking for allies. And, this was before Senator Booker got here. I teamed up with Dick Durbin from Illinois and shared this passion," Lee explained. "There weren't a lot of people who were all that interested in it at the time."
"But it gained a lot of momentum when my friend Cory Booker got here [in 2013] because you won't find a smarter or more passionate or more effectively speaking senator than Cory Booker," Lee said.
Lee recalled that on the first day that Booker arrived in the Senate, Booker approached him.
"He said, 'I heard you were doing a thing on criminal justice, I want in,'" Lee recalled. "That has helped tremendously to have him."
Lee said that another big help has been Obama's support for criminal justice reform.
"I think it has also helped, by the way, that President Obama has been very passionate about this issue," Lee said. "His advocacy has really helped."
Booker, who some believe is "the best chance for America to have its next black president" if he runs in 2020 and is the former mayor of Newark, New Jersey, told the audience that he didn't let the fact that Lee was on the opposite end of the political spectrum stop him from building a relationship over their shared passion.
"You put any conventional conception of American politics, you will see him on one pole and me towards the other," Booker said. "But we are two Americans, who in this time of fierce divisiveness in our country, see each other, first and foremost, as fellow Americans. When I joined Congress, we didn't look to find what divided us, we looked for common ground."
Booker explained that his interest in the criminal justice reform movement comes as he was awakened to the fact that criminal justice realities in the U.S. violate American ideals and principles, such as "equal justice under the law," "injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere," and "give me liberty or give me death."
"We are imprisoning people. Let's call them political prisoners because but for political action, they would be free," Booker said. "There are people in jail right now because of the 100 to one crack-cocaine disparity [passed in 1986] that for the wisdom of the Congress said that's wrong. The wisdom of the Congress said that is wrong and unjust and we are going to change it but they didn't make it retroactive. So, there are people rotting in prison watching people do the same crime or worse come in and out of prison and they are stuck there. Their very existence casts a shame over the values of our country."
Booker also stressed the injustice in the fact that drug laws are much more heavily enforced in poor and minority communities than they are in well-to-do communities.
"There is no difference between blacks and whites for using drugs, selling drugs, none whatsoever," Booker said. "If you look at poor communities, poor folks have a much more likely chance of being stopped. At Stanford University, no one is stopping us and frisking us on the way home from a frat party but there is a lot of drug use going on. ... but nobody is stopping and frisking and no FBI investigations are done. ... But in urban communities, poor communities, communities of color those things are going on."
"Suddenly, you have realities where in some of these communities, one out of every two black men has been arrested," he added. "What does that do to the economy? We know overall, America would have 20 percent less poverty overall if we had incarceration rates like our industrial peers."
A bipartisan bill that is currently sitting in Congress is the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2015. The bill would amend the federal criminal code to reduce certain mandatory minimums for drug offenses and gives judges more discretion in lower-level drug offenses. Also, the bill would give inmates the opportunity to participate in rehabilitation programs to qualify for early release.
The bipartisan bill passed through the Senate Judiciary Committee last October and is co-sponsored by 36 Senators from both sides of the political spectrum.
However, time is running out to pass the bill and put it on the president's desk before the legislative session ends. In fact, Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., has said that he may not run for re-election in 2020 if the bill can't get passed.
"We are not at a historic moment. A historic moment will be a president signing legislation that transforms the situation," Booker said. "We are at a tragic moment where everyday that we go without acting, there are people in America who are living examples of how we are violating our principles and ideals as a country."
"There is a bipartisan bill and the days are ticking off the clock for getting it done," he added. "When you think of bipartisan coalition, you often think of Democrats and Republicans finding some place in the middle that pleases Democrats and Republicans. That is not the case for this bipartisan bill."