After a career sending people to prison, it took three years inside a federal penitentiary to change Bernie Kerik’s mind about the criminal justice system. “Not only did I not know,” he tells National Journal, “I didn’t know because I didn’t pay enough attention to it. My job as a police officer and police commissioner is to enforce the law”¦. You don’t think about what that does on the other end.”
Kerik had a stellar career in law enforcement and corrections, rising to be commissioner of the New York City Police Department under Rudy Giuliani and then a nominee for Homeland Security secretary under George W. Bush. But he found himself at the other end of the law when he pleaded guilty to tax fraud and other charges in 2009.
Inside prison, he was shocked at what he found: good people. He still feels confident that he sent bad guys away as a police officer, but he had no idea how many others get snared in the net. A good father, a young person who made one mistake, a commercial fisherman who caught too many fish — people whose lives would be forever changed by a felony conviction. “The system,” he says of a machine he embodied as much as anyone for decades, “is broken.”
Now he’s taking his message to his fellow conservatives — and finding them surprisingly receptive.
Even a year ago, it would have been hard to imagine that someone on the main stage of the Conservative Political Action Conference, the annual gathering just outside Washington, would make a plea to businessmen in the audience to consider hiring more ex-cons. But that’s exactly what happened Friday during a panel featuring Kerik and Texas Gov. Rick Perry, whose state has implemented a slew of criminal-justice reforms in recent years, along with conservative mavens Grover Norquist and Pat Nolan.
“The establishment press wouldn’t expect to hear a discussion on criminal-justice reform at CPAC,” Norquist said. But only conservatives with their tough-on-crime bona fides can lead this reform effort, he continued. “Our friends on the left have zero credibility when it comes to reducing criminal activity and punishing people who deserved to be punished.”
The packed ballroom, if a bit skeptical at first, murmured along in agreement as the panelists framed the issue in decidedly conservative notes: the fiscal responsibility of reduced prison terms, the Christian compassion of redemption, the rolling-back of big government.
“The idea that we lock people up, throw them away, and never give them a chance of redemption is not what America is about,” Perry said. “Being able to give someone a second chance is very important.”
The governor, who presides over a state that executes more criminals than any other, went on to call mandatory-minimum sentencing laws a “really bad idea,” urging his fellow governors to be not just tough on crime, but “smart on crime.”
It’s a deep-red view of justice reform that began in Texas as a budgetary necessity during the depths of the Great Recession and has now spread to other conservative states like Louisiana, South Carolina, Georgia, and Missouri with moralistic zeal.
“These are not blue states,” Norquist says. “If these ideas hadn’t started in Texas, it’d be a lot harder to sell them.”
After three decades where Republicans could reliably win elections by posturing on crime, the trend has reversed and the momentum for sentencing reform has reached its zenith thanks to the influx of conservative support. The Heritage Foundation now stands with the NAACP and ACLU.
While liberals are typically more open to reform, Perry’s work in Texas stands in contrast to Democrats like Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who recently pushed for new mandatory minimums on drug crimes, and Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, who owes his success to cracking down on crime in Baltimore.
At CPAC, the message is tailored to the audience. Families Against Mandatory Minimums, the organization at the forefront of reform, attended the conference for the first time this year. At their exhibition booth, they handed out plastic guns to highlight the case of a Florida man who received a 20-year mandatory sentence for firing a warning shot to protect his daughter. Founder and President Julie Stewart said the choice of the case was intentional, meant to attract conservative support. “We’re trying to bring attention to the fact that it’s not just drugs, guns also often carry mandatory minimums.”
Garnering conservative support is crucial for advocates, and a number of red states such as Georgia have already moved in this direction. “This is the audience that I think would really move the ball forward. Democrats can’t do it alone,” Stewart added.
Conservatives who push for reform make an argument that mandatory sentences don’t actually reduce crime, and cost a lot of money. The federal inmate population grew by 13 percent between 2006 and 2012, and the Bureau of Prisons takes up about a quarter of the Justice Department’s budget.
Dropping crime rates and a greater emphasis on fiscal responsibility have opened the door for conservatives to embrace the cause. And doing so could be politically savvy for a GOP that does so poorly among nonwhite voters. Leaders on the right, such as Sen. Rand Paul, have noted that drug sentences disproportionately affect African-Americans.
Some pending legislation in Congress shows how much the momentum has built around this. A bill, cosponsored by Paul and Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy, gives judges greater flexibility to not use mandatory minimums in federal crime sentences. And a bill from Sen. Mike Lee, another tea-party leader, and the Senate’s second-ranking Democrat, Dick Durbin, would reduce mandatory minimums in certain nonviolent drug cases.
In Texas, Perry has made a pragmatic case for his emphasis on job-training programs for inmates. “Prisons are going to be used as training grounds one way or another. Either you’re going to be teaching them to be really, really good criminals, or you going to teach them to be entrepreneurs — the choice is ours,” he told the increasingly receptive CPAC crowd.
For Kerik, it’s encouraging to see the shift. “When Grover Norquist sits on a panel with me and says it’s a problem — it’s a problem,” he said in an interview after the event.
But there are still opponents to pending bills to reform sentencing on drug crimes, especially law-and-order Republicans such as Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa and groups like the National Association of Assistant U.S. Attorneys, which represents more than 5,300 Justice Department prosecutors.
How do you convince them short of sending to them prison? “I used to think like you, exactly like you,” Kerik says to a hypothetical debating partner. “And I haven’t lost my mind. I haven’t turned to the left and turned into some liberal lunatic.”
“Nobody has even been in the system with my background and experience. No one,” he continues. “I know how it works, I know what it’s supposed to do, what it’s supposed to accomplish — and I know the system can be fixed. So if they’re going to listen to anybody….”