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Moving Beyond “Sound Bites”: National Journal on How Right on Crime Has Changed Conservative Thinking on Criminal Justice

| October 3, 2014

The National Journal‘s Emma Roller covers the changes in conservative attitudes towards criminal justice policy, singling out the Right on Crime campaign for contributing to this important shift.

Forty years later, Marc Levin still cites the Horton case as one of the main reasons for America’s difficulty coming around to prison reform. Levin is the cofounder of Right on Crime, a conservative, Texas-based group that advocates for sentencing reform and eliminating mandatory minimums for low-level drug offenses.

Levin says that after the 1988 election, Democrats overcompensated with too-strict crime laws. “After Willie Horton and everything, they were really scared about being seen as soft on crime, so they overreacted and latched onto things that weren’t good policy, but were just sound bites,” Levin told National Journal.

In September, Politico credited Levin with persuading the GOP to “abandon its lock ’em up mantra.” And indeed, many Republicans in Congress are moving away from the tough-on-crime philosophy that dominated the Nixon, Reagan, and Bush eras. At a time when people complain about historic levels of gridlock, there is more bipartisan support for reforming the criminal-justice system than there has been in the past four decades.

Levin, the Right on Crime founder, says the financial burdens imposed by the justice system—which often disproportionately targets minorities and hamstrings those not wealthy enough to afford their own attorney—should especially outrage conservatives.

“Look, I’m a free-market guy, so I say the fact that rich people can get a better car, nicer jewelry, that’s all well and good. But here we’re talking about justice,” Levin said. “Conservatives ought to be particularly receptive to these things, and I think they are, because at some point it just becomes like a tax.”…

That human cost is very real. The violent-crime rate is the lowest it’s been in 20 years, yet there hasn’t been a corresponding decrease in incarceration. Nearly a third of the world’s female prisoners are incarcerated in the U.S. Between 1991 and 2007, the number of children with a parent in prison increased by 80 percent—so widespread that Sesame Street recently aired a segment dealing with the issue.

The prison population is the oldest it’s ever been. In West Virginia, 20 percent of the prison population is over the age of 50. This raises the question: What is the advantage of the U.S. spending billions of dollars to house prisoners who may not present any real public danger?

Yet there is reason for optimism. Last year, the federal prison population decreased for the first time in several decades. And at the state level, governors have been quietly putting reforms in place for years. In November, Californians will vote on a ballot initiative that would reduce drug felonies to misdemeanors and use the budget surplus to fund social programs. Even in Texas—the bastion of the tough-on-crime mentality—Gov. Rick Perry has funneled money into special courts and rehabilitation programs to reduce recidivism.

Criminal-justice reform has united other odd couples like Paul and Booker. In March, the Senate Judiciary Committee approved a bill put forward by Republican Sen. John Cornyn of Texas and Democratic Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island that would try to triage the likelihood that a prisoner would commit another crime, if released. The law would also give time credits to “low-risk” offenders and allow some to complete their prison sentences under “community supervision.”

Cornyn said it’s time to move away from the one-size-fits-all approach to treating American prisoners.

“When I went to law school, we’d learn in criminal law class that rehabilitation was always one of the goals of our criminal justice system. But honestly, in my lifetime, we’ve done a lousy job at rehabilitating people,” Cornyn told National Journal. “Instead, they have taken an approach that’s more like warehousing people.”

Cornyn said he’s confident that if the GOP retakes the Senate in November, prison reform will be one area where they will be able to work with the White House. Even Whitehouse—Cornyn’s Democratic counterpart on this legislation—sees this as an upside to a possible Republican-controlled Congress.

“Frankly, I think the biggest danger to these bills is not really on their substance. It’s just the threat of partisan and obstructive mischief by the more extreme Republican senators,” Whitehouse told National Journal. “The motivation for that mischief evaporates once they’re in control.”

There you have it—prison reform, the final frontier of bipartisan legislation. But as Levin points out, there’s just one last thing for Republicans and Democrats working on the issue to sort out: “The only disagreement sometimes is who’s gonna get the credit.”

This article appears in the October 2, 2014 edition of NJ Daily.

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RIGHT ON CRIME is a national campaign to promote successful, conservative solutions on American criminal justice policy—reforming the system to ensure public safety, shrink government, and save taxpayers money. By sharing research and policy ideas and mobilizing strong conservative voices, we work to raise awareness of the growing support for effective reforms within the conservative movement. We are transforming the debate on criminal justice in America.

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