Criminal-Justice Reform, Brought to You by CPAC

Republicans are the party of justice reform? Rick Perry, Grover Norquist, and the once-imprisoned Bernie Kerik say, YES!

WHITE PLAINS, NY - OCTOBER 20: Former New York City police commissioner Bernard Kerik enters the courthouse for a pre-trial hearing on October 20, 2009 in White Plains, New York. Kerik has pleaded not guilty to charges that he accepted renovations to an apartment he owned from a construction company in exchange for recommending the company for city contracts. 
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Elahe Izad and Alex Seitz Wald
March 7, 2014, 10:47 a.m.

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….”


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