MOST of the news coming from the recently concluded annual meeting of the Conservative Political Action Conference focused on big names in the Republican Party who are positioning themselves for a run at the presidency in 2016. Another storyline was the intra-party debate over how much focus should be given to social issues that conservatives hold dear.
A variety of other topics discussed at the conference drew far less attention. One of those was corrections reform. The takeaway: More and more conservatives understand that it must happen.
This is certainly the case in Oklahoma, although efforts to significantly change the way the state handles inmates have been met with lukewarm response. Sentencing reform has been a nonstarter — policymakers are fine with expanding, instead of trimming, the number of crimes that require offenders to serve 85 percent of their sentence before being considered for parole. A reform bill approved in 2012 has been only partially funded due to lack of buy-in. It sought to slow prison population growth and create savings that could be reinvested in other areas.
Conservatives in Oklahoma may want to make note of what other conservatives have to say about this issue. Grover Norquist, who wields considerable clout as head of Americans for Tax Reform, noted at CPAC that criminal justice reform might not be what most would expect to be discussed at such a gathering.
“But in point of fact, this is a big problem, it’s an expensive problem, and it creates problems that create more expensive problems,” Norquist said. He added, “We cannot let the left once again identify correctly a problem and then stick on top of it a solution that makes it worse. We’ve got to wrestle with the problem and come up with solutions consistent with conservative principles.”
Texas Gov. Rick Perry made the point that he doesn’t often agree with President Barack Obama or Attorney General Eric Holder, but he shares common ground with them on sentencing reform. Last year, Holder called for change in the way mandatory-minimum sentences are used in federal drug cases.
Reforms instituted in Texas resulted in that state — tough on crime by any measure — actually closing a prison. “That’s the message all across this country,” Perry said. “You want to talk about real conservative governance? Shut prisons down.”
The nationwide “Right on Crime” movement has been embraced by a number of conservative leaders, including Perry, Norquist and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush. Vikrant P. Reddy, who coordinates the Right on Crime campaign in Texas, told reason.tv at CPAC that conservatives generally come in three types — social conservatives, fiscal conservatives concerned about spending, and libertarians. “All three of these groups come together, and they come to common ground on criminal justice,” he said.
A stronger move in that direction in Oklahoma would be welcome. The state locks up more women, per capita, than any other. Its overall incarceration rate is among the five highest in the country. Consequently the prisons stay at or near capacity all the time.
A statewide poll in November by the Texas Public Policy Foundation found “overwhelming support across demographic and ideological groups in Texas for these reform principles,” said Chuck Devore, the foundation’s vice president for policy. As Perry put it, “We’re not a soft-on-crime state. I hope we get the reputation of being a smart-on-crime state.”
Perhaps Oklahoma will one day do the same.