Libertarian Think Tank Teaming Up With ACLU On Criminal Justice

Sep 20, 2016

The American Civil Liberties Union and the libertarian Beacon Center of Tennessee are teaming up on criminal justice reform.

The project, which they are calling Tennessee Coalition for Sensible Justice, will bring together a pair of strange bedfellows, who say they're going to press state lawmakers on practices they say are unfair to the poor.

The two groups say they're initially going to focus on three topics: helping ex-convicts get their records expunged, keeping juveniles out of adult prisons, and ending the practice of suspending people's driver's licenses over unpaid court fees and civil fines.

Those practices have been shown to entangle people in the criminal justice system.

The ACLU's Tennessee chapter was already supporting reforms in those areas. And they're not that much of a stretch for the Beacon Center, says president Justin Owen.

"Our ultimate mission is to empower Tennesseans to reclaim control of their lives. And so who has the hardest time doing that? Who has the most hurdles standing in their way? And it's mostly people in poverty."

The Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce and Goodwill Industries are also endorsing the effort. They say criminal justice reforms will lower recidivism and save taxpayers money.

It may seem odd that an organization like the right-leaning Beacon Center is partnering with the left-leaning ACLU. But libertarian groups, especially those associated with the conservative activists Charles and David Koch, have been putting their weight behind criminal justice reforms.

Last week, the Charles Koch Institute held a panel discussion in Nashville on the topic that drew together activists and lawmakers. Owen was a speaker at that event.

The Beacon Center is also member of the State Policy Network, a group that has ties to the Koch brothers. Owen says his group picks its priorities independently and that it's mainly funded by local donors.

The partnership between Beacon and the ACLU will focus on lawmakers. Goodwill and the Nashville Chamber say they plan to support the effort by providing testimony when legislation comes up for hearings at the statehouse next spring.

ACLU and Beacon leaders say they expect the project to last for several years. They're also interested in promoting drug treatment programs, mental health services and sentencing reform.