Pat Nolan strode to the podium and rattled off the facts: more than 2 million Americans are in prison, meaning one in every hundred adults is incarcerated. Fewer than half of those in prison are there for violent crimes; most are drug offenders; and state budgets are badly strained by maintaining this system. Then he read a quote: “Only a nation that’s rich and stupid would continue to pour billions into a system that leaves prisoners unreformed, victims ignored and communities still living in fear of crime.”
This wasn’t an ACLU convention nor an academic confab, however—it was the Conservative Political Action Conference, the infamous annual showcase of the far-right boundaries of the Republican Party. Just before this panel on criminal justice reform began, former governor and presidential candidate Mike Huckabee was onstage accusing President Obama of lying about Benghazi and pronouncing that “the IRS is a criminal enterprise.”
But the panel was far more substantive. Texas Governor Rick Perry spoke at length about unnecessarily punitive mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines, as well as the wisdom of drug courts that divert addicts out of the penal system and into treatment. During his time as governor, Perry has become one of the more aggressive prison reformers in the country. In 2011, the state actually closed a prison because it couldn’t be filled thanks in large part to the declining incarceration rate. (Before Perry, George W. Bush oversaw the construction of thirty-eight new prisons.)
“You want to talk about real conservative governance? Shut prisons down. Save that money,” Perry said. “Stop the recidivism rates—lower them. That’s what can happen with these drug courts.”
Then there was former New York City Police Chief Bernie Kerik, who no doubt has a unique view on the criminal justice system: aside from being police chief and running Rikers Island, he also was incarcerated for three years on conspiracy and tax fraud charges.
Kerik spoke passionately about the number of people he met in federal prison who who were there for nonviolent drug offenses—people who got ten years for drugs “the weight of a nickel.”
“If somebody told me I would go to prison and meet some really good people, I would have laughed in their face. The reality is, I met some really good men. Decent men. Good fathers, good family men,” Kerik said.
“We’ve got to create alternatives, and we have to stop putting people in prison that don’t necessarily have to be there to learn their mistake,” he continued.
Given that it was of course a political conference, the anti-tax crusader and guardian of the Republican brand Grover Norquist was there to provide the political calculus behind passing real prison reform. His theory was straightforward: as a matter of political necessity, the effort had to be lead by conservatives.
“If I walked in and said ‘It’s a really good idea, they did this in Vermont.’ They’d laugh at you. Even if it was a good idea,” Norquist said, putting an emphasis on Vermont you imagine he also reserves for Venezuela. “Only coming from the right can serious criminal justice reform that saves taxpayer’s money, that saves American lives, [emerge].”