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].”
Norquist struggled to explain exactly why this was. He said conservatives had the right federalist approach by starting the reform movement in the states, but naturally state penal systems have to be reformed at that level, while the federal criminal code must be addressed by Congress.
The most Norquist could ultimately muster was an empty cheap shot: “Our friends on the left have zero credibility when it comes to focusing on reducing criminal activity, and punishing people who deserve to be punished.”
But, at heart, Norquist isn’t wrong on the strategy. Buy-in from the left and right is surely needed to enact real reform, and the CPAC panel reflected ongoing, noteworthy momentum on that front. Republicans aren’t just declining to criticize Democratic efforts at reform but trying to out-muscle them and claim the issue.
There were, of course, huge blind spots during the discussion. The all-white panel literally never mentioned racial disparities in sentencing—one of the most glaring injustices in America’s criminal justice system. The only glancing mention of race at all came when Kerik noted that “black kids with felony convictions” have a hard time re-entering society.
Rather, the unfairness of the criminal justice system was presented in a way that dovetailed with the more typical CPAC jeremiads.
Several panelists portrayed the federal prison system as full of people locked up because of over-burdensome regulations; Kerik mentioned two fellow prisoners who were there because they sold a whale’s tooth and some night vision goggles online. Nolan, the moderator, ticked off a list of hilariously esoteric crimes people are supposedly in prison for, like “inadvertently mislabeling a shipment of orchids” and “packaging lobster in plastic bags instead of cardboard.”
Nolan also suggested federal prosecutors had it in for conservatives (and perhaps white college athletes). “Think of the resources wasted on witch hunts against Dinesh D’Souza, Scooter Libby, the Duke Lacrosse team and Senator Ted Stevens,” he bemoaned.
Though the high number of nonviolent drug offenders was mentioned over and over again, nobody ever revealed that blacks make of 50 percent of state and local prisoners incarcerated for drug crimes, nor that black kids are ten times more likely than white kids to be picked up for drug offenses despite being less likely to use drugs.
The drug war couldn’t possibly be conceived as racially motivated—instead, the panelists had to cook up some extremely unusual reasons for why so many people were in jail for possessing trivial amounts of drugs. “For the bureaucrats, it’s easier to pick on these first-time offenders that are small cogs in the chain. Taking on a big kingpin means your family and you are threated by it, and unfortunately a lot of bureaucrats are afraid. And so they go after the numbers of small people,” said Nolan.
The reforms pushed by the panel were limited in other ways, too. There was no small irony in having Rick Perry talk about criminal justice reform, since he has presided over more executions than any other figure in American history, including at the execution of at least one likely innocent man. Naturally, the death penalty never came up.
But perhaps one shouldn’t expect the CPAC set to talk in terms of the prison system as a new Jim Crow. Maybe it’s enough to just be heartened when a popular conservative like Perry says things like this: “The idea that we lock people up, throw them away, give them no chance at redemption, is not what America is about.”
That’s how he closed his remarks—well, right before launching into a non-sequitur about the Keystone XL pipeline and unfair federal taxes, almost as if he had to close on a note that reassured the audience he was still one of them.
Moments later, everything was back to normal. Ralph Reed was onstage noting gravely that “there is, in truth, a war on religion and a war on religious values being waged by this administration and their radical allies.” Then he went on to compare Obama to George Wallace.
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