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."