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Is This the Year America Wakes Up to Its Prison Disaster? Why Conservatives Are Finally Jumping on the Bandwagon

As states' budgets bleed, some of them are shifting from "tough on crime" to "smart on crime."
 
 
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Struggling with chronic budget crises, lawmakers in more and more states are embracing sentencing and other reforms in a bid to hold down corrections costs. But while sentencing reform has long been the domain of "bleeding heart" liberals, now conservatives are driving those efforts in some states.

It's not just about dollars. Although fiscal concerns are a driving force among conservatives, there are also signs they are recognizing and confronting the failures of our drug and criminal justice policies. In a recent  Washington Post op-ed, none other than former House Speaker Newt Gingrich wrote of "more humane, effective alternatives" to the national imprisonment binge.

Still, as their states bleed red ink, some of them are shifting from "tough on crime" to "smart on crime." Leading the charge is a newly formed advocacy group,  Right On Crime, endorsed by big conservative names including Gingrich, taxpayer advocate Grover Norquist, and former drug czar William Bennett.

Based in Texas, Right On Crime is touting the success the Lone Star State has had with sentencing reform to make such reforms more palatable to conservatives. In 2003, the state passed legislation ordering that small-time drug offenders be given probation instead of prison time, and in 2007, the state rejected prison-building in favor of spending $241 million on treatment programs for offenders.

Crime rates declined at the same time the incarceration rate did. And the state has saved about $2 billion by not building an additional 17,000 prison beds it once thought it needed.

Now, conservatives in other states are pushing similar reforms -- Right on Crime identifies  21 states it says are engaged in "conservative" sentencing and corrections reforms.

"The fiscal argument is resonating with conservatives and liberals alike these days," said Marc Mauer, executive director of the  Sentencing Project. "Prison and corrections spending is the big elephant in the room right now; it is ripe for cuts."

But it's not just the fiscal argument, said Mauer. "Some of this is in keeping with conservative philosophy, and much of their concern about incarceration has focused on drug policy. The drug war encompasses the whole country, but the federal system is an enormous part of it. Conservatives view it as taking over areas of policy that should best be left to the states," he said. "And then there are sort of libertarian conservatives who don't think the government should be telling us what is appropriate behavior."

It is also the result of years of effort by key advocates, said Mauer. "People like Pat Nolan at the  Justice Fellowshiphave been working with that community for over a decade now about why this should be a conservative issue also," he pointed out.

Mauer welcomed the emergence of conservatives interested in sentencing reform. "We need to broaden the range of voices that are being heard on these issues," he said. "They can be helpful in a couple of ways, most importantly in communicating that these are not necessarily liberal or conservative issues, but good public policy perspectives. It's kind of ironic that the one area where there seems to be real bipartisan cooperation happening is in criminal justice policy."

"I think it's a good thing," said Traci Velasquez, executive director of the  Justice Policy Institute (JPI). "The work that JPI and a lot of others have done over the years points out financial and social reasons why existing drug and other criminal justice policies have been ineffective, and some of those reasons are conservative: It doesn't work and it costs too much. I'm glad to see voices across the political spectrum are speaking out on this."

The years of laying the groundwork are starting to pay off now, said Velasquez, who also pointed to the efforts of the Justice Fellowship. "There has been a lot of receptivity this year," she said. "When governors gave their inaugural speeches this year, I think there were ten of them that included things about criminal justice reform, locking up fewer people, and helping ex-prisoners be more successful in the community."

Sentencing and other criminal justice reforms are also benefiting from a sort of benign neglect, Velasquez said. "Because the media is focused on a lot of other issues, there is a little more space to talk about these issues," she said. "Between the Middle East, the overall economic crisis, and two wars, the media doesn't have a lot of time to push a hysterical criminal justice narrative as it did in the past. Now, policymakers can worry less about commentators ripping them apart as soft on crime."

Whether or not conservatives actually accomplish sentencing reform, the fact that they are now addressing it is a positive step, said Mauer. "If nothing else, just the symbolism of these leading conservatives coming out helps shift the political climate under which these issues are being addressed," he said. "It makes it a little more comfortable to talk about it."

The fact that the states are now collectively spending $50 billion a year on corrections, making it their second-fastest growing spending category behind Medicaid, according to the  Pew Center on the States, is impelling efforts at change in places not previously known as bastions of reform:

In Indiana, Republican Gov. Mitch Daniels has made a massive criminal justice system overhaul one of his top legislative priorities this year. Based on a  report from the bipartisan Indiana Criminal Code Evaluation Commission, the package includes recommendations to cut sentences for possession and sale of cocaine and methamphetamine.

In the past decade, even though crime rates fell in Indiana, the prison population increased by 40%. Corrections spending also increased, although not as much, and now swallows up $616 million a year. More than half of Indiana prisoners are drug or property offenders. If current trends continue unabated, the report found, the prison population will increase by another 21% by 2017, and the state will have to spend an additional $1.2 billion on top of current corrections spending just to make room to house them.

While the reforms have broad support, not everybody is on board. The Association of Indiana Prosecuting Attorney has voted to oppose the recommendation to cut drug sentences.

"There are all kinds of proposals on the table that reduce and reassign sentencing levels," the group's 2010 president, Shelby County Prosecutor Kent Apsley told the  Indianapolis Star last month. "Some of them in my view are pretty extreme changes in the law and probably go too far. The question is: Where is the breaking point where you're saving money to the point that it may seriously impact public safety?"