Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Criminal Justice Reform: It's Not Just for Democrats

The Republican National Committee has released a partial list of speakers tapped for the GOP convention scheduled for later this month in Tampa, Florida. In making the announcement, RNC Chair Reince Priebus said the list includes “some of our party’s brightest stars, who have governed and led effectively and admirably in their respective roles.”

Conservative criminal justice reform advocates should be pleased with the list. While not every speaker has embraced the “Smart on Crime” model, many of them have done so enthusiastically, and in the process have demolished the tired idea that conservatives aren’t open to common sense criminal justice reform.

Take Former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, who could never be confused with a liberal. He has argued that “we have not been very successful in incarcerating our way out of the drug problem. We’ve created a bigger problem. Our prisons are teeming with people who don’t need to be incarcerated as full-time inmates . . . I’m not soft on crime. Crime needs to be punished, but realistically, and justly.”

In case you’re still unsure of Huckabee’s conservative credentials, remember: Chuck Norris is Mike Huckabee’s friend.

What about Ohio Governor John Kasich? Kasich has a lifetime rating of 88% with the American Conservative Union. Governor Kasich made criminal justice reform a priority of his administration, and last year he signed a reform bill designed to “send low-level nonviolent felons to rehabilitation facilities in lieu of prison, put a credit-earned system in place, and adjust prison sentences for drug and petty theft offenses. The package was proposed as a means to save money, reduce recidivism, and ease overcrowding.”

Upon signing the bill, Kasich said:

I get emotional about this because I think the passage of this bill … is going to result in the saving of many, many lives, maybe even thousands, before all is said and done. I think as we all know, the type of reform in this legislation has sat idle for 25 years … Nobody wanted to touch it … You know what, when you’re dealing with human beings … if you’re going to put your own future ahead of other people’s lives and their ability to reclaim their lives, you’re making a big mistake.
Another speaker, Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, recently joined Right on Crime, a group of conservative heavyweights that supports criminal justice reform (including mandatory minimum sentencing reform) and includes Grover Norquist, Newt Gingrich, and Ed Meese. Governor Bush said of the effort, “States across the country, including Florida, are proving that policies based on these sound conservative principles will reduce crime and its cost to taxpayers.”

Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallin worked with Right on Crime, the American Legislative Exchange Council, and Republican legislators to craft a comprehensive Justice Reinvestment bill that included sentencing reforms and is projected to save her state millions of dollars. On signing the bill, Governor Fallin said, “[I]n addition to saving tax dollars, [community sentencing options ] will help nonviolent offenders, many of whom have substance abuse problems, to receive treatment and safely get back into their communities.”

Of all the speakers at the convention, Senator Rand Paul might be the most vocal critic of mandatory minimum sentencing. Not only has Senator Paul blocked federal drug legislation because it contained mandatory minimums, he’s said on the record that “On mandatory minimums, I don’t think teenagers accused of possessing drugs should get twenty years in prison. I’ve fought to get rid of this.”

Perhaps most notably, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, who has not been named a speaker but who almost certainly will be (he could also be named Governor Romney’s running mate), said recently that “[t]he war on drugs, while well-intentioned, has been a failure.” Christie signed reform legislation designed to reduce New Jersey’s reliance on incarceration in drug cases, and made the case that such reforms go beyond saving money: “If you're pro-life, as I am, you can't be pro-life just in the womb,” he said. “Every life is precious and every one of God's creatures can be redeemed, but they won't if we ignore them.”

Across the country, conservatives understand that criminal justice systems should be subject to the same analysis as every other area of public policy. They realize we spend far too much on incarceration and receive far too little in return. Thankfully, some of the GOP’s “brightest stars” have made criminal justice reform a part of governing and leading “effectively and admirably.” It’s good to see the Republican Party not only embracing such reforms, but also rewarding the conservative leaders in criminal justice reform with a chance to share their views at the convention.

Greg Newburn
Florida Project Director