Bipartisan Prison Reform

Post Date: January 22, 2014

(National Review Online) — For the past ten years, a small group of influential conservative leaders has been getting together occasionally after one of Grover Norquist’s famous off-the-record Wednesday Meetings to plot the Right’s strategy on a tricky, politically fraught issue. Not fracking, not gay marriage, not campaign finance. Instead, every few months, these conservative leaders from name-brand organizations have been circling up to talk prison reform.

Now, according to a number of Hill aides, we’re on the cusp of getting bipartisan prison-sentencing reform. And another prison-reform bill looks to be within shouting distance. If everything falls into place for the legislators pushing for reform, it will be surprising for two reasons: First, because the number of bipartisan accomplishments in this Congress is less than enormous; and second, because the bipartisan allies pushing for these policy changes are about as ideologically far-flung as they come. Tea-party favorite Mike Lee (R., Utah) and Senate majority whip Dick Durbin (D., Ill.) have teamed up, as well as Texas Republican John Cornyn and Vermont Democrat Patrick Leahy. It’s like the start of a “Meanwhile, on Earth 2” joke.

Conservative interest in criminal-justice reform may sound novel, but in reality it’s nothing especially new. Pat Nolan of the American Conservative Union tells NRO that the quiet meetings of conservatives interested in prison reform started after the 2004 elections. Nolan, who was working on prison-reform issues with Chuck Colson’s Prison Fellowship ministry at the time, had been involved in the conservative movement since 1966 and used his extensive contacts to help put together the ad hoc group of conservative movers that, depending on the day, has included Norquist; NRA president (and longtime ACU president) David Keene; the late Tony Blankley, sometime press secretary to Newt Gingrich; representatives from the Cato Institute and the Heritage Foundation; and direct-mail pioneer Richard Viguerie. 

Over lunch, Nolan briefs the attendees (there are usually eight to ten of them), picks their brains on how to build more conservative support for reform, and gets advice on how to handle messaging and media. Attendees go on to write op-eds, do radio interviews, and speak with legislators. 

Before there were downtown-D.C. strategy meetings, there was Texas. Marc Levin, policy director of the Right on Crime project at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, explains that financial concerns were a big selling point for state Republicans on prison reform. Texas legislators acted in 2007 after the corrections department told them it would need to spend the money to add upwards of 17,000 beds over five years. 

“As more and more money went into prison, there was less and less left for those things that could keep people out of prison,” Levin says. Read more