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‘Anything Is Possible’: Left and Right Unite to Pass Criminal Justice Reform

The bipartisan Justice Action Network has been a driving force behind criminal justice reform in red and blue states across the nation, and it played a significant role in uniting the parties to pass the federal First Step Act in 2018. In a time of partisan gridlock and amid a global health crisis, how does this group get it done?

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This is the first in a two-part series. Coming soon: Part 2, How JAN Helped Pass the First Step Act

Washington, D.C. — Holly Harris sits in her office in the Hall of the States on North Capitol Street in Washington, in the shadow of the U.S. Capitol and a stone’s throw from Union Station, where legislators and lobbyists regularly shuffle in and out.

A suitcase sits on top of her otherwise barren desk, signaling her short stay at the headquarters of Justice Action Network before she heads back to her home in Lexington, Kentucky.

Harris was in Washington last fall for a meeting of JAN, a group she launched in 2015 with the goal of getting bipartisan criminal justice reform passed across the country. In just five years, the group has put boots on the ground in 20 states, using its partners from leading conservative and progressive organizations to lobby legislators, educate the public, rally supporters, and pass more than 100 pieces of state legislation.

And its work has gone all the way up the federal level. The First Step Act — the biggest piece of criminal justice reform legislation in a generation — was signed into law by President Donald Trump in December 2018 thanks in no small part to JAN and its persistence.

With each new bill, JAN continues to add fuel to the criminal justice reform movement — which was just simmering when the group started out.

“You heard all the bills flying here,” Harris says of that morning’s JAN meeting last fall. “There was nothing filed when we started, and now it’s like people are dying to jump on top of this stuff because now it’s politically palatable.”

Holly Harris at her office in the Hall of the States on North Capitol Street in Washington.

The Birth of Justice Action Network

How Harris found herself leading a bipartisan group devoted to fixing America’s criminal justice system is the story of a woman who had just about given up on politics before realizing it didn’t have to destroy — it could unite.

Harris began her career as a TV reporter in Lexington, Kentucky, before attending law school and falling in love with litigation. She worked in Kentucky’s justice cabinet, handling civil litigation; did general counsel work for the state’s Republican Party; and was a special counsel for the state Senate. She got into the nitty-gritty of politics when she returned to the state party to raise money for the re-election efforts of Sen. Mitch McConnell and other Republican candidates up and down the ballot.

In 2012, she became chief of staff for James Comer, Commissioner of Kentucky’s Department of Agriculture. And, later, when Comer decided to run in the Republican primary for governor, Harris became his campaign manager.

But in December 2014, after only a few months at the helm amid a campaign that had turned ugly, Harris was out.

The exhaustion of political attacks and partisan arguments left Harris wanting something more. “I needed a reset,” she says. “Politics had become so toxic. I was a new mom, and I just didn’t like the person I was becoming, which was always sort of looking for ways to divide and destroy.”

Then a friend told her about a small startup, the Coalition for Public Safety, which needed a project manager to work on criminal justice reform. It was time for Harris to get back out there, her friend said. She had a gift, he told her, and while she may not have the most polite tactics, she had an ability to make things happen that other people had written off and give a voice to the voiceless — something that’s especially impactful in criminal justice work.

In May 2015, Harris joined CPS, a coalition of about a half dozen national groups that seeks to fix flawed criminal justice policies. The original CPS groups — both left and right organizations, from the American Civil Liberties Union to the Faith & Freedom Coalition — focused on jumpstarting policy discussions and educating voters on what needs to change.

But as states started filing legislation on criminal justice issues, it became apparent that CPS would need an advocacy arm that could lobby for reform. So that summer, not long after Harris had arrived at CPS, she recruited colleague Jenna Moll — who, Harris says, is “the smartest person in the criminal justice space, encyclopedic with her knowledge of state reform efforts” — and launched what is now known as Justice Action Network, a broader collection of influential groups and voices focused on lobbying for criminal justice reform legislation.

“It was just such a nice change to be able to unify and cooperate and find ways to get along with people, which kind of, like, required me to become a totally different person,” Harris says, laughing. “Maybe not totally different, because I would find out soon enough I’d be doing some fighting as well.”

JAN Addresses Coronavirus in Jails

(David Zalubowski/The Associated Press)

As coronavirus continues its dangerous spread across the nation, Justice Action Network has been making use of its established relationships inside state capitols and its campaign-style tactics to push for governments to act swiftly to avoid a catastrophic situation inside jails and prisons.

Without action—including releasing to home confinement the sick and elderly who are incarcerated on nonviolent charges and are most susceptible to catching the disease, as well as providing safeguards like social distancing, hand sanitizer, and soap inside jails and prisons—there could be devastating results, says JAN’s Holly Harris.

With most legislatures closed or in the process of shutting down, JAN is taking its message straight to governors and legislative leaders, urging executive actions to safely reduce incarceration and enact safety measures. It’s also rallying for the federal government and Congress to take action.

“I hope [the nation will] act in a way that’s responsible before it’s too late,” Harris says.

Coming soon: The Criminal Justice System Responds to Coronavirus

JAN started with advocacy in three states: Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Michigan. Its first issue: civil asset forfeiture, where law enforcement officials can take someone’s property even if the person hasn’t been charged with a crime — making people who have done nothing illegal go through long, expensive fights to get their property back.

“I remember doing my first press conference in Pennsylvania on civil asset forfeiture, and we had a ban-the-box bill in Ohio,” Harris says of those early days. “They were really just good bills that weren’t getting much attention and needed a little something different, maybe something more focused on campaign tactics rather than just educational and policy discussion.”

Harris was able to draw from her previous experiences working on campaigns. She lobbied legislators, commissioned polls, and launched media efforts, leaning on Moll’s policy expertise and JAN’s national partner voices. JAN also joined forces with groups already on the ground in Pennsylvania and Ohio that were rallying for reform.

It was important to Harris that JAN didn’t just plow into a state and try to control everything.

“There were groups on the ground that had been doing amazing work for a long time, and we didn’t want to usurp those groups; we wanted to empower them,” Harris says. “So this was not a let’s control the space and usurp the people that have done this work for years. It was, how do we further empower them with campaign-type tactics that they haven’t been able to afford previously; how can we be additive and not disrupt the amazing work they were already doing?”

So in addition to JAN’s national partners, the group started to bring on state-based partners as well. The network was growing with each new state it took on.

JAN’s Army of Partners

While Holly Harris is the president and executive director of JAN, she is quick to point out that she wasn’t hired for her criminal justice expertise.

“Everyone in this room has forgotten more about criminal justice policy than I will ever know,” Harris says matter-of-factly, motioning to a long conference table that moments earlier had been surrounded by dozens of representatives from JAN’s national partner organizations — the people, she says, who are the heart of the organization.

On that early-October morning, those men and women milled around the room, taking off suit jackets and opening up bottles of water as the temperature in Washington reached the upper 90s. When Harris entered and got the crowd into their seats, she addressed the name placards that had been placed on the table and apologized for the assigned seating.

“We wanted this to be very right-left-right-left instead of like an eighth-grade dance where it’s, like, conservatives on one side and progressives on the other,” Harris said to laughter.

“What eighth-grade dance did you go to?” a voice called out.

“It’s Kentucky,” Harris said with a smirk. “It’s pretty one-sided.”

The political differences within the room were vast: Around the table sat representatives from groups including the Americans for Tax Reform, NAACP, Center for American Progress, Faith & Freedom Coalition, ACLU, FreedomWorks, and Americans for Prosperity — organizations that on any other issue don’t typically see eye-to-eye. But they all agree on the one key point that matters to JAN: America’s criminal legal system is broken.

The group only takes up issues where there is bipartisan consensus — including bail and probation, sentencing and civil asset forfeiture — and leaves the more partisan issues like the death penalty, guns, and drug legalization on the cutting-room floor.

What Harris finds so successful about JAN is how the partner organizations can reach so many people with their own targeted audiences — and the more people who learn about why criminal justice reform is needed, the better.

“The beautiful thing is what we now define as bipartisanship, it’s not so much everybody speaking together in one voice; it’s all of you all using your own unique and distinct voices to speak to your constituencies,” Harris said at the October meeting, “and for all of us to be sort of in on the grand plan and be able to come together and talk about strategy.”

Each of the organizations has its own role to play in helping get legislation passed. FreedomWorks, with its network of 6 million activists across the country, is quick and efficient at lobbying elected officials. Families Against Mandatory Minimums, known as FAMM, develops its platform of advocacy based on input from 37,000 people incarcerated in federal prisons and is effective at putting a human face on egregious injustices.

JAN and its distinctive bipartisan approach received more media attention when the First Step Act passed in 2018, but that bill wouldn’t have been successful without the significant strides JAN had already made in the states, says Inimai Chettiar, JAN’s federal legislative and policy director, whom Harris calls “my progressive doppelganger.”

“I don’t think it would have come up to the federal level had the states not done things first,” Chettiar says of First Step. “Because when people were afraid that sentencing reform would bring up crime, the response was, well look at all these states, all these red states that did it. So I do think had the states not already done this, there wouldn’t have been as much appetite federally.”

With each success JAN racked up in its first years came more confidence — and a bigger budget — which allowed it to add more staff and broaden its reach. Those initial three states became nearly a dozen within the year, and with 2020 marking the fifth anniversary of JAN, the group is aiming to be active in 20 across the country.

When choosing which states to target reform, the group always asks, “Is there a deficiency there we can fill? Does the state need us?” Harris says. But what’s key is the potential for bipartisanship.

“The most important thing to us is, is there bipartisan will in the state; are right and left willing to work together?” Harris says. “Really, at our core, that is the thing that makes us very different from any other group. Everything we support has to be right-left. Because that is the only sustainable movement. You look at some of these states that have gone red to purple to blue, blue to purple to red, the only way to make this sustainable is if it’s owned by both — that’s the most important thing.”

‘The Crown Jewel of Reform’

It’s been only five years since JAN chose to focus its early reform efforts in Pennsylvania, and the state has accomplished a great deal in that short time.

“The crown jewel of reform,” as Harris calls Pennsylvania, had its most high-profile success in 2018 with the passage of the Clean Slate law, which ensures the automatic sealing of records for those who committed nonviolent crimes more than 10 years ago or were found not guilty. While a number of states have been expanding their record-clearing laws over the past few years, the idea of making expungement automatic is a new effort.

In 2016, when JAN was looking for bipartisan co-sponsors to design a model for automatic record-clearing, Pennsylvania’s Democratic Rep. Jordan Harris and Republican Rep. Sheryl Delozier stood out for prior justice work they had done in the state.

“Jordan and I have been called ‘the Odd Couple,’ ” Delozier says. “He jokes about it: ‘Look, I’m a black man from Philadelphia Democrat, and she’s a white woman from central Pennsylvania Republican, what in God’s name could we possibly have in common?’ We are able to have in common the fact that we can make some common-sense criminal justice reform.”

The most important thing to us is, is there bipartisan will in the state; are right and left willing to work together?
Holly Harris JAN President and Executive Director

After helping bring the lawmakers together to sponsor the Clean Slate bill, JAN provided endless support to get it passed. It polled voters, brought in data on what other states were doing, and did a deep dive on Pennsylvania’s records system. Then it helped marry the policy with the people.

FreedomWorks and the Center for American Progress “helped us highlight people who would be eligible had Clean Slate become law and what it would mean to their life,” Jordan Harris says. “They brought all of that together to help us weave a narrative that has helped tell the story of Clean Slate.”

JAN also partnered with groups already on the ground, like ACLU Pennsylvania, the Commonwealth Foundation, the state and city chambers of commerce, and Community Legal Services. The spirit of bipartisanship made all the difference, Delozier and Jordan Harris say, as did JAN’s work bringing stakeholders together to find consensus.

“We certainly started out with entities that wanted us to do nothing, and we also started out the same conversation with people who felt everybody should be free and have their records wiped clean no matter what the crime,” Delozier says. “Having people on the ground like the Justice Action Network, it’s more legs that can go on the Capitol and make phone calls and try to find out what the issues are with a particular stakeholder. Then they can bring it back and say, ‘Hey look, this is what Group A and Group B have concerns with; let’s try to find a happy medium.’ Or, ‘Group C is fine with it; let’s make sure they’re OK with some of these changes.’ ”

This past year, Delozier and Jordan Harris — and JAN — have been at it again, working on two significant pieces of legislation that are still pending in the Pennsylvania General Assembly.

One bill would end the practice of automatically denying an occupational license to someone with a conviction; a person would be denied only if the occupation is directly related to their conviction. The state currently bars those with criminal records from jobs that require a license, like barbers or cosmetologists, which hinders their chances of finding employment — and staying out of prison. “Let’s not be the reason they’re unemployed,” Delozier says.

The other bill, the Smart Probation and Parole Act, aims to fix an overly punitive probation system that reincarcerates people for nonviolent mistakes and keeps many in an endless loop of prison and probation, sometimes for the smallest technical violations.

While both pieces of legislation have faced resistance, advocates have high hopes they will eventually pass.

“I think it’s a matter of when, not if,” says Kevin Ring, president of FAMM. “I think Pennsylvania has to address its broken probation system.”

Ring was among the hundreds of people who lined the grand marble staircase of Pennsylvania’s Capitol Rotunda last fall to show support for the probation bill. As FAMM does so well, it put a human face on the issue by bringing families and formerly incarcerated people to Harrisburg to make sure lawmakers heard their stories.

Kevin Ring is President of FAMM. (John Kopaloff/Getty Images)


“At FAMM, we believe the best way to change policy is for people to see the people who have been directly impacted by it,” Ring said to the crowd. “We have facts, we have evidence, we have data, we can nerd out with anybody, but what you need to see are the real people this is impacting. They are black, they are white, they are brown, they are all Pennsylvanians.”

To have the greatest effect, Ring coordinated with JAN to put out a poll that same day, which strengthened the narrative in the media. The poll showed bipartisan support for both bills — 75 percent voter support for probation reform and more than 80 percent support for occupational licensing reform.

“You wanted the visual of 200 people at the state Capitol at a time where the story could say that the majority of Pennsylvanians want this,” Ring says of the one-two media push. “If you were going to try to make clear this was popular, a poll would have been helpful, a rally would have been helpful, but together they were even better.”

JAN in Ohio: ‘Immeasurably Valuable’

In the summer of 2015, Rob McColley was a Republican freshman legislator in Ohio who wanted to reform the state’s civil asset forfeiture law, which allowed law enforcement to take property from people who are accused, but not convicted, of crimes based on the suspicion that the property was involved in a crime. As a former criminal defense attorney, McColley knew the law was unfair and needed changed. As a new lawmaker, he needed a little help to get there.

Enter JAN. The network of partners jumped in to provide support. They educated McColley on what other states had done, offered expert testimony, and got the presses rolling, explaining the merits of the bill to the public and countering some of the opposition that was being thrown at them.

And they brought together disparate groups — from the progressive ACLU Ohio to the Libertarian-leaning Buckeye Institute to the conservative FreedomWorks — and got everyone singing the same tune.

“That really helped in painting the picture that, look, these groups don’t often agree, but if they agree on something like this, then this is something we need to take a serious look at, especially in this era, in this day and age in politics,” says McColley, now a state senator. “So it was very valuable for them to provide that research so we could actually focus on the internal side of managing the caucus and counting the votes and managing the bill … while they made sure that everybody was still rowing the same direction on the other side.

Ohio state Sen. Rob McColley, pictured in March 2019, has been a leading voice in criminal justice reform in his state. (Andrew Welsh-Huggins/The Associated Press)

Jason Pye, vice president of legislative affairs for FreedomWorks, says his organization identifies target pieces of legislation in coordination with JAN. When the forfeiture reform bill came along, FreedomWorks was able to mobilize its supporters in the state and generate 65,000 emails and phone calls to Ohio House and Senate offices over the course of the year-and-a-half-long campaign.

By the time it was all said and done, Pye recalls with a laugh, the state lawmakers “were basically saying we’re tired of getting emails from FreedomWorks, we want this thing done.” In January 2017, then-Gov. John Kasich signed the bill into law.

Today, JAN is back on the ground in Ohio working on Senate Bill 3, an aggressive drug sentencing reform bill that would reclassify certain drug offenses from felonies to misdemeanors and provide addiction treatment instead of incarceration to those charged with possession of certain drugs. The bill has generated some opposition from law enforcement, prosecutors, and judges who feel that it may go a step too far, but McColley believes the Senate is committed to moving it and will get it done this General Assembly, which ends in December.

In many of the same ways JAN helped with McColley’s civil asset forfeiture bill, it’s helping with Senate Bill 3, and that includes Pye and his mobilized activists. In the year since the bill was introduced, FreedomWorks has sent more than 24,000 emails encouraging state senators to pass the bill. Getting that win across the finish line in 2020 is one of FreedomWorks’ priority campaigns, Pye says.

Getting criminal justice reform passed is never easy, McColley says, but “having those people who are willing to step into the arena and be a voice in support of whatever you’re trying to do is immeasurably valuable.”

JAN in Kentucky: ‘It’s Beyond Helpful’

Republican state Sen. Julie Raque Adams knew something needed to be done with criminal justice reform in Kentucky. One of the biggest cost-drivers of the state’s budget came from corrections — and it was trending in the wrong direction. And she was troubled by the news that Kentucky had the second-highest rate of female incarceration in the nation.

Like her peers in Pennsylvania and Ohio, Raque Adams looked to Justice Action Network for help, and she says the group was instrumental in getting her up to speed about the big pressure points, nationally and in Kentucky, for criminal justice reform.

Raque Adams chose to pursue a “dignity bill,” aimed at improving conditions for incarcerated women, and she called on Harris for help. The bill tackled issues Harris was passionate about and was pushing throughout the country: It banned the shackling of pregnant women and ensured that most pregnant women who are accused of low-level, nonviolent offenses not be incarcerated. It also offered expanded treatment for those struggling with addiction and improved health and hygiene services for all incarcerated women.

Kentucky state Sen. Julie Raque Adams speaks on the floor of the Senate chamber in Frankfort in March. (Bryan Woolston/The Associated Press)

Having JAN to lean on was priceless, Raque Adams says. In March 2018, Kentucky became the first state to pass a dignity bill for incarcerated women. And its pioneering move was critical in getting similar provisions added to the federal First Step Act, which was signed nine months later.

“Here’s where they’re very good: They have already established relationships with the Cabinet and with legislators who oversee the appropriations for the corrections budget,” Raque Adams says. “They have a lot of gravitas with the thought leaders and with the stakeholders in the legislature. Everybody in the General Assembly who deals with these issues knows they can turn to them and get the most up-to-date, the most well-thought-out, and the most relevant information that is out there on the subjects.”

JAN’s work in Kentucky began in 2016, when it helped pass a felony expungement bill that made certain individuals with low-level felonies eligible to have their records cleared. The bill helped thousands of Kentuckians, but it fell short, excluding many Class D felony offenses and limiting access by setting a high application fee.

In Kentucky’s most recent legislative session, JAN successfully advocated for an update to the 2016 bill, increasing eligibility for expungement and lowering the application fee, “which was a huge step forward, because there were so many folks left behind in the last expungement bill,” says Amanda Hall, a Smart Justice organizer for ACLU Kentucky who lobbies state officials for justice reform.

JAN helped Hall get meetings with Kentucky legislators and rallied other groups to help. One thing Hall says she appreciates is JAN’s willingness to let the state organizations on the ground take the lead, all the while uplifting them and giving them the resources they need.

“They really do highlight the work other groups are doing,” Hall says. “Supporting the folks doing this work in the state of Kentucky is so helpful; it’s beyond helpful.”

Reform Champions Reap Rewards

Harris has watched as state lawmakers who make a name for themselves in criminal justice reform are vaulted into more powerful political positions.

After McColley’s successful civil asset forfeiture effort in Ohio, he served in House leadership as assistant majority whip, and when a Senate seat came open, the Senate president selected him to take it.

“The trajectory of his career — I have no doubt the man will end up occupying statewide office or running for Congress,” Harris says, “and it really was, and he would say it, too, it was criminal justice reform and us being able to lift him up, lift up that bill, and really make that a signature achievement for him.”

And following the passage of Kentucky’s dignity bill, Raque Adams was one of the few Republicans to survive a tough election for conservatives in Louisville in 2018. She was also elected into leadership as the first female caucus chair in the history of Kentucky.

“That dignity bill was the difference between me winning and losing in my suburban district in 2018,” Raque Adams says. “We had a very unpopular governor and a president that was losing a lot of the female vote. People ask me, ‘How did you survive? Everybody else kind of went down in Louisville with the exception of you,’ and I said, ‘I’ll tell you why; it’s because of the dignity bill.’ It really resonated with people. It was the first time we showed not only a creative approach to how do we spend taxpayer dollars but a compassionate approach to the human services element of this issue.”

But just as some legislators are rewarded for their efforts, those who fight against reform have also seen the effects.

Republican gubernatorial candidate Eddie Rispone, who attacked Democratic Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards for his work on criminal justice reform, lost in a November runoff.

Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards addresses supporters at his November election night watch party in Baton Rouge. (Matthew Hinton/The Associated Press)

“I will say John Bel Edwards very much embraced bipartisan criminal justice reform as a theme of his campaign, and he emerged victorious as a Democrat in a deep red state that voted overwhelmingly for Trump,” Harris says.

The Future of Reform

Last fall, despite the noise of impeachment and partisan bickering crowding the media space, JAN was still laser-focused on pushing through legislation at the state and federal levels.

“For the record, I totally reject the theory that we can’t get things done during a ‘tumultuous political time,’ ” Harris tweeted one Saturday last fall. “That’s what lazy, unimaginative Beltway ppl say. Where there’s a will, and a damn good strategy, there’s a way. #backtofootball.”

Harris, who was flipping back and forth between college football games and 24-hour news, said she became frustrated hearing “old-school talking heads” making excuses as to why they can’t get to yes on legislation: because of impeachment, because we’re going into election season, because, because, because.

“There’s always a strategy to overcome obstacles,” Harris says. “We’re in an environment now where anything is possible. Like or dislike Donald Trump, I think everybody would agree that protocol is out the window and what was the norm is no longer the norm.

“I just don’t like the lazy thinking — using a political obstacle as a reason to accept failure,” Harris says.

It’s that can’t-stop-won’t-stop attitude that makes Harris so effective in her job.

“They don’t screw around,” FreedomWorks’ Pye says of JAN. “They know what the goal is, the end goal is, they don’t have time for drama, they want to get straight to the point, they know what needs to happen to get that done, and they’re going to try to see it through to the best of their abilities.”

Not to mention, JAN’s political savvy is unmatched, says FAMM’s Ring.

“Their thing is, we’re going to get as bold of bipartisan reform as we can, anywhere we can,” Ring says. “They have the skillset and the ability to know how to win, but then also the desire to take a win, to accept progress, and then come back the next year and fight for more.”