Strange bedfellows: The right and left team up on criminal-justice reform
Away from the spotlight, criminal-justice-reform advocates are making progress – with the help of their new friends, the conservatives
By DAVID S. BERNSTEIN | January 26, 2011
The practical result of the new spirit of political civility is still an open question, but there is one area where small-government conservatives and do-gooder liberals might really be moving toward significant policy agreement, compromise, and action: criminal-justice reform.
With the spotlight on bigger issues of economy, war, and health care, this usually hot-potato issue is arguably getting more serious attention than it has in years. Policy makers are trying to determine what really reduces crime and what doesn’t — and how we might shift from simply locking up as many people as possible to a more effective, and cost-efficient, model.
It’s a subject long thought to be the purview of liberals. But now, conservatives are helping to drive this backstage discussion — and not just any conservatives, but right-wing icons like Newt Gingrich, William Bennett, Ed Meese, and Grover Norquist, to name a few.
They are not all newcomers to criminal-justice reform. But a month ago, for the first time, they teamed up to form an organization — Right on Crime — that will advocate the way conservative foundations have previously done on such issues as gun rights, low taxation, and restriction of abortions.
Longtime activists — most of them liberals — tell the Phoenix that Right on Crime could be a game-changer, just what’s needed to find bipartisan consensus on new policies — even if left and right are coming to the same answers through very different motivations.
And that they are. Left-leaning groups tend to be seeking justice and fairness for the underprivileged who disproportionately get caught in the tentacles of America’s prison system.
These conservatives, by contrast, are driven by a desire to shrink government spending; a libertarian view toward decriminalizing personal behavior; and a belief in faith-based rehabilitation programs.
“Their number-one concern is that the criminal-justice system is a bloated big-government program that has run amok,” says Julie Stewart, executive director of Families Against Mandatory Minimums in Washington. “And frankly, I agree with that.”
It’s making for some odd collaborators. Long-time reform advocates are expressing guarded optimism that this new right-wing effort might change the political calculus that has long impeded their efforts. But at the same time, they are skeptical of what these conservatives are really up to.
“We’re optimistic,” says Jennifer Bellamy, criminal-justice lobbyist for the American Civil Liberties Union in Washington, “but we’re also realists.”
There have always been some voices for reform on the right, and conservative lawmakers have crossed over at times, including on the 2010 Fair Sentencing Act, which reduced the disparity between punishment for powder and crack cocaine.
But the timing is right for a much bigger engagement, particularly at the state level, where newly elected Republican governors and legislators are facing financial crises. Suddenly they’re willing to consider “smart on crime” policies that can reduce the corrections budgets that have soared unchecked for decades.
“I’ve been saying for years that I’m waiting for conservatives to realize this,” says Mark Kleiman, professor at University of California Los Angeles. While calling budget reduction “the least good reason” to consider reform, Kleiman says that “in this case, the goal of saving money, and the goal of not keeping people in cages, gets you to the same place.”
That’s the hope that led Kleiman to a small gathering about a year ago, called by Gingrich — which brought together a dozen or so mostly left-leaning reform advocates, with a similar number of conservative leaders, including then-chairman of the Republican National Committee, Michael Steele.
That was the start of what turned into Right on Crime. Gingrich’s effort drew behind-the-scenes attention — and funding — from nonpartisan organizations like Pew Center on the States, and the Council on State Governments. And, thanks to the interest of Texas Governor Rick Perry, it eventually found a home with the Texas Public Policy Foundation, which is part of the influential conservative State Policy Network.
Some advocates say that Right on Crime will get in the door with Republican lawmakers, who have a knee-jerk unwillingness to listen to their own organizations, which are perceived as part of the lefty opposition.
And we’re already seeing some GOP governors willing to take the lead, in a “Nixon-going-to-China” way, where Democrats fear to tread.
Perry, for instance, pushed through significant sentencing reforms in Texas after a study showed that, at the current rate of incarceration, the state would need to spend billions it doesn’t have on new prisons. And Mitch Daniels, governor of Indiana, is currently advocating large-scale reforms for the same reason.
It is not lost on some liberal activists that Perry and Daniels are also potential candidates for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination, as is Gingrich. The days of national Republicans pounding on Democrats with Willie Horton–style ads may give way, in this cycle, to serious approaches that would actually serve to reduce crime.
But these same liberals are well aware that when push comes to shove, politics often trumps ideas. Gingrich was taking up the cause of combating global warming as recently as two years ago; he changed his tune as he became more serious about a possible presidential run.
It’s uncertain how influential these outside conservatives will prove to be.
The first test may come with the National Criminal Justice Commission Act, which Senator Jim Webb of Virginia is expected to reintroduce this year. That bill, which would create a study of effective criminal-justice practices, was considered a major step toward wide-ranging reform. But, despite passing the Democratic-controlled House, and being voted favorably out of Webb’s Judiciary Committee, the effort died in 2010 — because tough-on-crime conservatives like Tom Coburn of Oklahoma blocked it.
With Republicans now heading the House, the bill’s chances of success would seem to have dropped. Some on the left are hoping that Right on Crime can improve those odds.
But it’s hardly clear that the right’s vision of criminal-justice reform will end up looking like what the left has envisioned. And Right on Crime, while outlining some fine-sounding principles, has not yet attached itself to any specific policies.
Eric Sterling, president of the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation in Washington, says he welcomes conservatives to the conversation, but wonders whether, for instance, culture warriors like Bennett will be willing to back the idea of sending fewer people to prison for drug use, prostitution, or pornography.
Likewise, small-government activists like Norquist might balk at new programs, for rehabilitation and early-release supervision, that cost money and create new bureaucracies.
For now, however, the lefty advocates are embracing the new conservative interest in their cause — as strange as some of their new bedfellows may seem.
To read the “Talking Politics” blog, go to thePhoenix.com/talkingpolitics. David S. Bernstein can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.