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California Prison Reformin'

California's ripe for ideas about prison reform, and the right is delivering

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In modern politics, the Republican Party has traditionally been the party of law and order—of the "three strikes" law and building more prisons—while the Democratic Party has been more inclined to tout criminal-justice reform. A recent trend is turning that notion on its head.

A burgeoning political movement calls for dramatic changes in the criminal-justice system—including shuttering prisons, putting limits on prosecutorial power, reducing the length of prison sentences and creating more humane conditions for prisoners.

Surprisingly, these ideas mostly are being pushed from the right and implemented in states where Republicans have the most power.Conservative Texas has been shutting down prisons and approving ACLU-sounding policies that California's liberal leaders—careful not to offend their allies in the police and prison-guards' unions—only occasionally discuss.

Texas is home to "Right on Crime," a leading justice-reform project that has the support of Republican luminaries including Newt Gingrich, Rick Perry and Jeb Bush. This movement is starting to get national attention—not surprising, given the potential it offers not just for creating a more humane system, but for saving tax dollars.

A recent issue of The New Yorker profiled former California Assemblyman Pat Nolan, a "law-and-order" Republican from the San Fernando Valley, who in the mid-1990s pleaded guilty to one charge of racketeering and served more than two years in prison. He had accepted a donation from an FBI front group and voted for a bill that would expand a small-business loan program.

"Nolan insists that he voted for the loan because the fictional venture promised jobs, and that he took the contributions because that's how people help elect legislators who see things their way," according to the article. But he took a plea deal because he "calculated that, if found guilty, he could be in prison until his young children were in their twenties."

Last week, I talked to Nolan, who now heads criminal-justice efforts for the American Conservative Union Foundation in Washington, D.C. His brush with the law "began to open my eyes" as he saw prosecutors weren't after the truth but were seeking scalps. After seeing what happened to him, he became concerned about what happens every day to the poor and minorities who are less financially able to fight back.

"As I was in prison I saw the bureaucracy surpassing any idea of transformation of the inmates, or preparation of the inmates … I saw the waste and just the attitude," Nolan added. "As a legislator I was very tough on the bureaucracy … and yet I turned a blind eye to prisons. Anything they wanted I gave them … It was because I agreed with their purposes: they are there to keep people safe. Yet they were just as inefficient at doing that as the DMV was at giving us licenses."

In his experience, the nation's prisons are run with one of two management philosophies. The first views the job as "public safety" and wants inmates to leave prison better off than when they came in. The second is concerned solely with keeping order. The easiest way to accomplish that is to cut deals with the prison gangs—letting them run roughshod as long as there aren't riots or escapes.

These conservatives are pushing for the first approach—and say it is consistent with their belief in fiscal responsibility and limited government. The goal, Nolan added, is to save prison space for criminals who harm other people. But mandatory minimum sentences often impose absurdly tough punishments on people who have caused minimal harm to others. "Because there are so many laws to break, all of us are vulnerable," he added.

In Texas, prison spending was growing so quickly it was threatening Republican promises of keeping the lid on taxes. California's legislators aren't so concerned about tax increases, but there's not enough money to fund all the programs they support. So there's great opportunity here, too. None of these ideas should be tough for Democratic leaders to embrace given that they are based on ideas that have traditionally come from the left.