Conservatives, Liberals Unite to Cut Prison Population

Post Date: March 17, 2014

(USA Today) — It was a surprise dinner invitation that made Marc Mauer of the Sentencing Project realize he had new allies in his effort to end mandatory minimum prison sentences.

After years of working with liberal groups like the NAACP and Human Rights Watch, Mauer found himself dining at a conservative think tank with heavyweights of the political right, including former GOP House speaker Newt Gingrich and anti-tax activist Grover Norquist. The discussion topic: the explosion in the U.S. prison population due to federal and state laws requiring minimum sentences for even non-violent offenders.

“We had this three-hour free-flowing discussion about the need to reduce the prison population,” Mauer said of the 2009 event. “It was striking how much agreement there was there.”

Since mandatory sentencing became widespread in the 1980s and prison populations and costs began to climb, opponents have pointed to its disproportionate impacts on minorities and the poor. The political right is entering the fray from a different angle, calling the current criminal justice system an expensive government program that produces poor results.

Conservative support has given criminal justice reform a powerful bipartisan boost. Since 2010, 13 states have revised sentencing laws, including traditionally red states Arkansas, Kentucky, South Carolina, Louisiana and Georgia. Texas began diverting drug offenders from prisons in 2007 through drug courts, probation and treatment and has cut its incarceration rate 11%.

“Conservatives have long held the cards” to changing sentencing rules, says Adam Gelb, director of the Pew Charitable Trusts’ Public Safety Performance Project, which provides help to states on criminal justice issues. “They had the tough-on-crime credentials … and it’s been much easier for them to step out and say ‘this isn’t working and we have to find a better way.”’

It has also brought together some very odd couples. U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder opposes mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent drug offenders. So does former National Rifle Association president David Keene. Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., and Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., are among those supporting a measure now pending in the Senate that would reduce mandatory sentences for drug offenses.

“It’s the perfect example of odd bedfellows. This is something they agree on,” says Molly Gill of the non-partisan group Families Against Mandatory Minimums, which set up a booth at the Conservative Political Action Conference this year for the first time. “This is a big government program run amok, if you’re a conservative. And if you’re liberal this is (a policy that’s) hugely flawed in the racial disparities and its impact on the poor.”

Booker, who as mayor of Newark created a prisoner re-entry program that included job training, called it an “exciting convergence in American culture, that you’re starting to see people from the right, evangelicals, libertarians and others coming to the same conclusion as many people who are traditionally Democrats. … It really drives my hope that we can get some real substantive change.”

Conservative support for sentencing reform includes libertarian-leaning Sens. Paul and Mike Lee, R-Utah, the advocacy group Right on Crime, founded by Norquist, and the Justice Fellowship, an offshoot of the prison ministry founded by Chuck Colson, an aide to President Richard Nixon imprisoned in the Watergate break-in.

“We’ve reached a certain critical mass of conservatives that as we look around we say, ‘Hey, this is the conservative position,”’ says Pat Nolan of the American Conservative Union. “There are enough of us that we are not outliers.” Read more