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A few weeks back, I highlighted the friction between ascendant libertarians and ignored social conservatives at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC). After some time to mentally digest that red meat laden all-you-can-eat political buffet, one nutritious morsel still stands out: the surprisingly unified focus on criminal justice reform. No foolin’.

When crack cocaine was driving a crime and media frenzy in the 1980s, the GOP cemented its position as the law and order party. George H. W. Bush would ride the menacing mug of the murderer Willie Horton to a 1988 victory over a Massachusetts liberal named Michael Dukakis who was pummeled for being a “card carrying member of the ACLU.” Tougher sentencing laws, crescendoing into the “three strikes and you’re out” fad of the 1990s, would be passed to tie the hands of judges who seemed too often to just be administering a slap on the wrist.

Had one waltzed into a CPAC of that era and announced that a day would come when a panel of conservative heavyweights would sit on the main stage and bemoan mandatory minimum sentences for drug crimes, call for more real rehabilitation of inmates, and urge the hiring of ex-cons; I dare say a Martian would have felt more at home. Well, the aliens have landed, and they are not from Mars—they’re from Texas.

Governor Rick Perry loudly trumpeted the fact that Texas, by utilizing reforms such as special drug courts, focused more on treatment than incarceration, had “shut a prison down.” After a little chest thumping about executions, Perry said, “We’re not a ‘soft on crime’ state. I hope we get the reputation of being a ‘smart on crime’ state.”

There beside the governor was the spending-conscious and newly converted Grover Norquist, head of Americans for Tax Reform. Norquist noted that it was time conservatives move beyond just trying to keep the government from sticking its nose where it does not belong and instead “spend as much time improving the things that government should be doing.” He concluded, “We cannot let the left correctly identify a problem and then slap on a solution that makes it worse.”

Starring in the “I’ve been there” role that the late Prison Fellowship founder Chuck Colson would have previously played was Bernard Kerik, the New York City Police Commissioner under Mayor Rudy Giuliani who was George W. Bush’s nominee to head Homeland Security before a corruption scandal instead landed him in prison for nearly three years. A man who had once run one of the largest prisons in the country emerged convinced that the system was “broken” with too many non-violent offenders (lots of them “good men”) serving time in a place that is “a training ground for thuggery.” He lamented that when felons are released, they face a “life sentence,” the legal and societal stigmas that make it very difficult to legitimately support themselves and their families. It often added up to a “punishment that did not fit the crime.”

The room was not close to being full for this panel, but those there were by no means hostile; quite unlike the feisty audience that pit a national security faction against the civil liberties crowd when the topic was NSA surveillance. If any “tough on crime” wing remains within the conservative movement, its proponents were literally or figuratively out to lunch.

Down in the exhibition hall groups like Right on Crime and Families Against Mandatory Minimums joined Colson’s Justice Fellowship and were all well received. Even capital punishment seemed to be on life support with Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty in the house. While it may not have been CPAC’s main course, justice reform was certainly the soup of the day.

What might seem to be an unexpected and sudden supernova of reform is really the result of multiple stars aligning over time.

– First, there was the religious right led by Colson. With his conservative credentials solidified by extended time in the culture war trenches, he had been humanizing prisoners and their families for decades through things like Angel Trees, along the way reminding believers about the possibility of redemption and their Savior’s words of care for those in prison.

– Second, libertarians have never wanted to hand the state too big of a sword, especially when it comes to the war on drugs, and their megaphone has grown louder through Senator Rand Paul and others.

– Third, the skyrocketing cost of locking folks up at a rate that is tops among countries not named North Korea is making fiscally conservative lawmakers think twice, especially after promised silver bullets like private prisons sometimes produced more scandal than savings. In Texas, for example, a 2007 budget projection on the costs of future prisons did much to crystallize the issue.

– Fourth, crime dropped to a low enough level where one could seriously ask if we were not locking up too many people without fear of being labeled “soft” on the issue.

– Fifth, the “get tough” system was in place long enough that there had largely been a changing of the political guard since its enactment, meaning that there were few tough talkers still around who would have to publicly eat crow.

– Sixth, even if the final policies could also be welcomed by liberals like Senator Patrick Leahy who is partnering with Paul at the federal level, the ideas bubbled up independently through conservative or libertarian think tanks like the Texas Public Policy Foundation and were consistent with longstanding principles.

– And finally, a state like Texas went first.

The last factor should not be underestimated. Messengers matter. If only Nixon could go to China, perhaps only Perry could go to prison. As Grover Norquist noted, if these same good ideas had come from Vermont, they would have been “laughed at” in red states like Georgia, Mississippi, Florida, and Missouri that have instead followed the Lone Star State’s lead. (Conservatives still might ponder whether a guilt by association mindset is worth rethinking—just in case Vermont happens to get to a good idea first, but that’s another story.)

The net result is a mini-revolution that seems to be pushing the pendulum back towards a more sensible, scriptural, and financially sustainable place on the justice and mercy continuum. It also provided a rare moment at CPAC where libertarians and social conservatives could legitimately lock their arms rather than raise their fists.

Link to full panel video:

John Murdock is now trying to align a different set of stars, writing a book on the biblical and conservative case for creation care from his native Texas.

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