Bipartisan Prison Reform
Many conservatives and liberals agree: We’re putting too many people in jail.


Betsy Woodruff

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. 

So the state passed reforms designed to reduce recidivism by creating alternatives to incarceration. Low-risk, nonviolent drug offenders were getting sent to prison because judges and prosecutors couldn’t find anything else to do with them, according to Levin. Prison in Texas costs $50 per person per day, but alternatives are much, much cheaper: Probation is only $3.50 per day, drug courts are about $6 to $8 per day, and an electronic GPS runs at about $10 per day. 

So policymakers realized they could make a dramatic increase in spending on incarceration alternatives and still save tons of money. And that’s not even touching on the fact that, as Levin points out, incarceration can sometimes be counterproductive. Alternatives to incarceration mean that people convicted of nonviolent crimes can spend time with their families instead of in prison.

The general consensus was that Texas’s reforms worked. In 2004, a little over 30 percent of the state’s released inmates ended up incarcerated again within three years. By 2007, that number had dropped to 24 percent. Instead of adding thousands and thousands of beds, the state closed three adult and six juvenile prisons. 

From a political perspective, the state’s success was incredibly significant — not just because it showed that prison reform was workable as a policy, but also because it was Texas. 

Norquist tells NRO that when he testified at a hearing on criminal-justice reform in Florida, “When I would say, ‘You know, in Texas they did this,’ all of a sudden the Republicans on the committee would look up and go, ‘Oh, you mean this is real. This isn’t something from Vermont.’” 

It took conservatives a little while to realize that you could accuse the Pentagon of wasteful spending without being soft on defense, Norquist continues. “We were slower to get the point on criminal-justice reform,” he says. 

But get it they did, and a number of other states have followed Texas’s lead: The Texas Public Policy Foundation worked with legislators in Georgia, South Carolina, Ohio, and Pennsylvania to pass sentencing reform. 

So conservative interest in state-level criminal-justice reform has grown significantly over the last few years. But Levin, a key mover in these reform efforts, stayed bearish about the odds of federal policy change. That changed, though, with Senator Rand Paul’s speech at Howard University last April. 


Sign up for free NRO e-mails today:

NRO Polls on LockerDome

Subscribe to National Review