Last week’s Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) had its usual denouncements of the welfare state and parade of presidential candidates, but the Washington Post’s Wesley Lowery writes that “the most important moment” of the gathering was a panel on criminal justice reform.
The panel included Texas Gov. Rick Perry and alpha anti-tax activist Grover Norquist, and Lowery says there’s a genuine appetite for change on the right:
On issues of sentencing reform and prison recidivism, Republicans — especially several governors in southern states — have been leaders, earning praise from prison reform groups from both sides of the aisle for efforts to save money by implementing rehabilitation programs and curbing skyrocketing prison costs. In fact, a non-partisan study issued last year about how Massachusetts, which is undisputed as one of the bluest states in the union, could cut prison costs, credited Republican-led states with how they've tackled prison reform.
Not all Republicans are off the “tough on crime” habit, but several governors (from both parties) touted rehabilitation efforts in State of the State speeches this year, and conservatives such as Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul have called for the restoration of voting rights for ex-convicts as one way to re-integrate them into society.
Criminal justice reform may also help the Republican Party’s image among urban and non-white voters — at least, more so than cutting anti-poverty programs in the name of promoting the “dignity of work.”
The American Conservative’s Leah Libresco was also impressed by the CPAC panel, likening it to a “Nixon goes to China” moment. She noted that Perry's participation may surprise those who associate him with an unwavering support for the death penalty (something that Southern conservatives, at least, are unllkely to abandon any time soon):
Perry may seem like an unlikely spokesman for criminal justice reform, having come under fire from reform groups like the Innocence Project, which has repeatedly petitioned to commute death penalty sentences without success. But Perry draws a distinction between death penalty or life without parole sentences, which are intended to sunder a criminal permanently from civil society, and shorter sentences, which, due to a dearth of rehabilitation programs, leave criminals unprepared for reintegration and force a de facto separation.
The moderator and director of the American Conservative Union’s Center for Criminal Justice Reform, Pat Nolan, argued that restrictions on felons had gone beyond those required for public safety, pointing out that “barber” is among the many professions that felons are barred from entering. Hair cutting is, ironically enough, one of the few skills a convict is very likely to learn on the inside.
According to Libresco’s account of the panel, Norquist said that red states may have an advantage in enacting reforms because conservatives would be more suspicious of rehabilitation programs in, say, Vermont.
But Democrats are not going to cede the reform issue to the GOP. NPR’s Brian Mann reports that New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo is proposing to restore free college classes for prisoners in his state, arguing that they will be better qualified for work upon release and will be less likely to commit new crimes. (“You pay $60,000 for a prison cell for a year. You put a guy away for 10 years, that’s 600 grand. Right now, chances are almost half, that once he’s released, he’s going to come right back.”)
Still, Mann’s report gives some credence to Norquist’s idea that Democrats have a tough time selling rehabilitation programs:
Even some members of the governor’s own party hate this idea. State Assemblywoman Addie Russell, whose upstate district includes three state prisons, says taxpayers just won’t stand for inmates getting a free college education, while middle-class families struggle to pay for their kids’ tuition, housing and books.
“That is the vast majority of feedback that I’m also getting from my constituents,” she says. “You know, ‘Where is the relief for the rest of the law-abiding population?’”
Photo of Texas Gov. Rick Perry from Catholic News Service.