It was a surprise dinner invitation that made Marc Mauer of the Sentencing Project realize he had new allies in his effort to end mandatory minimum prison sentences.
After years of working with liberal groups like the NAACP and Human Rights Watch, Mauer found himself dining at a conservative think tank with heavyweights of the political right, including former GOP House speaker Newt Gingrich and anti-tax activist Grover Norquist. The discussion topic: the explosion in the U.S. prison population due to federal and state laws requiring minimum sentences for even non-violent offenders.
“We had this three-hour free-flowing discussion about the need to reduce the prison population,” Mauer said of the 2009 event. “It was striking how much agreement there was there.”
Since mandatory sentencing became widespread in the 1980s and prison populations and costs began to climb, opponents have pointed to its disproportionate impacts on minorities and the poor. The political right is entering the fray from a different angle, calling the current criminal justice system an expensive government program that produces poor results.
Conservative support has given criminal justice reform a powerful bipartisan boost. Since 2010, 13 states have revised sentencing laws, including traditionally red states Arkansas, Kentucky, South Carolina, Louisiana and Georgia. Texas began diverting drug offenders from prisons in 2007 through drug courts, probation and treatment and has cut its incarceration rate 11%.
“Conservatives have long held the cards” to changing sentencing rules, says Adam Gelb, director of the Pew Charitable Trusts’ Public Safety Performance Project, which provides help to states on criminal justice issues. “They had the tough-on-crime credentials … and it’s been much easier for them to step out and say ‘this isn’t working and we have to find a better way.”’
SOURCE: Martha T. Moore