Rex Features / AP

Criminal justice reform finds new champions, on the right

Once out of sync with tough-on-crime mentality, overhauling criminal justice gains support among conservatives

OXON HILL, M.D.—In a corner of the subterranean exhibition hall at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference this week, nestled among the booths for libertarian think tanks, tea party groups and the sprawling display of the National Rifle Association, a nonprofit organization called Families Against Mandatory Minimums handed out yellow squirt guns labeled with the slogan, “Sentences that fit.”

The advocacy group, which has been working on criminal justice reform since 1991, opposes the harsh sentencing laws that have contributed to skyrocketing rates of incarceration in the United States. Long associated with progressive politics, a criminal justice group like this one once might have been unwelcome at a conference for GOP party activists, but judging from FAMM’s reception at CPAC, that is no longer the case.

Molly Gill, a government affairs counsel for the group, chatted at the booth with a young CPAC attendee who thanked her for giving a presentation on mandatory minimums. “There’s been such a sea-change,” she said. “In probably the last three to four years, conservatives have woken up to the fact that this is an enormous problem in their communities.”

Indeed, criminal justice reform has gone from a niche issue in conservativism — important mainly to libertarians concerned with the government encroaching on individual rights — into the mainstream. Some on the right are pushing for the GOP to make it a signature part of conservative ideology, as much a part of the movement as reducing the debt or repealing Obamacare.

Gill said addressing the problem of mass incarceration and unfair sentencing has becoming an increasingly easy pitch to make to conservatives, who are concerned about the fiscal and moral cost of locking up millions of offenders and are increasingly persuaded by research showing that mass incarceration is not an effective remedy for crime. 

“People have to give conservatives credit on this issue,” Gill said. “They speak and think about it in exactly the right way. This is big government in the courtroom; this is Washington, D.C. telling a judge in Washington State how to sentence.”

Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, an all-but-declared presidential candidate for 2016, struck a similar note during his address to CPAC on Friday, telling attendees that the GOP would be wise to recognize the problems that government overreach has created for low-income and minority communities.

He cited the case of Kalief Browder, a Bronx teenager who was held in Rikers Prison in New York for three years without a trial. “If we want to get new people into our party and get libertarians and others who believe in privacy… we have to say to people like Kalief Browder that big government is not only a problem as far as regulations and taxes,” Paul said. “Big government is a problem for sometimes not giving justice to those who deserve it.”

Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty, a newer group, started in 2010, was also in attendance at CPAC. They have a tougher sell, asking members of a party who have traditionally been staunch defenders of the death penalty to take a closer look at the harshest punishment the criminal justice system has to offer.

Marc Hyden, coordinator for the organization and a former campaign representative for the NRA, admitted that he was initially apprehensive about taking his new cause to conservative activists. “I was used to being kind of the darling of the conservative crowd,” he said. “I was worried that my peers might not accept me, but it was the direct opposite. We were inundated by supporters that didn’t know they could be conservative and against the death penalty.”

Hyden argues that opposition to the death penalty fits perfectly with conservative values. “I contend the conservative thing to do is to oppose the death penalty because of its risk to life and the high cost compared to life without parole,” he said. “There’s nothing limited about giving an error-prone state the power to kill citizens.”

Criminal justice reform has attracted a number of high-profile backers in recent years, including former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who made tough-on-crime policies a central part of his 1994 Contract with America; former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who, while championing the death penalty, has boasted of closing prisons in the state by redirecting funds to probation and substance-abuse programs; and Sen. Ted Cruz, who is part of a bipartisan coalition of lawmakers endorsing legislation to give judges full discretion in sentencing for certain drug offenses.

Even Charles and David Koch, the billionaire GOP donors who have poured millions into traditional conservative causes, have given their backing to the Coalition for Public Safety, a new group that brings together the right and the left to push for criminal justice reform.

Vikrant Reddy, senior policy analyst with the Austin-based Texas Public Policy Foundation, a conservative think tank that has been spearheading the “Right on Crime” campaign to advocate for criminal justice reforms across the country, said conservatives, traditionally thought of as “tough-on-crime,” bring a new credibility to the issue.

“The reason for all the energy is conservatives,” Reddy said. “Liberals have been working on this issue for 20 years, they didn’t get anywhere. Even libertarians, many here at CPAC, haven’t gotten any traction on the issue, but when conservatives started stepping forward and said, ‘This is a real problem,’ all of a sudden you started seeing real movement,” he said. “This is conservatives’ bread and butter. I certainly hope in due time this is part of the conservative issue set.”

Still, there continue to be powerful opponents of a wholesale overhaul of the criminal justice system, including Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, who has called sentencing reforms “dangerous” and “lenient.”

Reddy sees the divide as generational, rather than ideological. “Some of the legislators who have been in office for a very long time and remember a time when crime rates were very high, when New York City was a cesspool of crime, they are still crafting policy for that era,” he said. “It’s not a left-right issue.”

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