The GOP is no longer monolithically the tough-on-crime party many think of it as being. As the debate rages on over whether or not we're living through a "libertarian moment," it's worth noting that conversations around criminal justice reform are featuring prominently this weekend at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in National Harbor, Maryland.
Groups like Right on Crime and Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty (CCATDP), once viewed mostly as novelties within the movement, are now fixtures of CPAC. What's more, they're making the case for rethinking the party line on criminal justice issues in decidedly conservative terms.
"The first year we got a lot of weird looks," CCATDP's advocacy coordinator, Marc Hyden, says. "But since we keep coming back, we're accepted as just another part of the umbrella of conservatism. Nobody questions whether I'm a conservative or not—I'm talking about pro-life policies, fiscal responsibility, and limited government, and the death penalty just doesn't work with that."
Right on Crime Deputy Director Derek Cohen also has a playbook for reaching his fellow conservatives—and different messages work for different groups, he says. When talking to fiscal conservatives, he likes to point out that the same government that runs the post office runs the prison system. "Not exactly a model of efficiency," he says. In Texas, where Right on Crime is based, a move toward giving low-level offenders probation or parole instead of prison time has allowed the state to forgo spending $2 billion on new prison infrastructure.
Social conservatives, on the other hand, "tend to appreciate the human value" and the "redemptive quality" of in-facility programs that help people—including people who have made serious mistakes—better themselves. "Even for serious crimes, even for violent crimes, when we send someone away for a long time, their life is fundamentally altered," Cohen says. "That could be altered for the better, but that's only if we're putting in the rehabilitational elements that reduce recidivism."
He conjures the example of a father and husband who gets caught with a little bit of heroin. His prison sentence under the old scheme would likely be just long enough to cause him to lose his job and experience problems at home. For social conservatives genuinely nervous about the decline of the family, that's clearly a sub-optimal outcome. If instead people like that get intensive probation, "they're at work. They're at their kids' ballgames."
There's some evidence policy is moving in tandem with the increased support among conservatives. Houston's district attorney recently introduced guidelines whereby most first-time low-level drug offenders are diverted into community programs instead of locked up, for example.
We're seeing progress on capital punishment as well. Just yesterday Florida's legislature passed an overhaul to make it less likely that offenders will end up on death row. On the same day a judge ruled that Alabama's execution system, like Florida's before it, is unconstitutional. Last year Nebraska abolished its death penalty, and on Wednesday of this week the Utah state senate voted to do the same. "Now it's heading over to the [Utah state] House," Hyden says, "and the speaker of the House is against the death penalty! So we may get another red state to repeal the death penalty, which proves that Nebraska wasn't an anomaly."
The piecemeal nature of these victories can also be used to appeal to conservatives, he says. "I look at it through a Tenth Amendment framework—change should be done at the state level. If it's not expressly mentioned in the Constitution, it should be done by the states."
Reason TV caught up with CCATDP's Hyden at CPAC last year. See what he had to say below.