The story also includes an appeal to conservative moral values supporting de-incarceration as well as my favorite example of over-criinalization - the wide ranging number of oyster related crimes. :)Just don’t say they’ve gone soft. With $52 billion a year spent on state corrections, prison costs have become the fastest growing budget category behind Medicaid. According to the Pew Center on the States, one in 31 Americans is somehow under the thumb of the criminal justice system. One in eight state workers and seven percent of most state general funds are dedicated to running prisons. With just about every state facing budget woes, prison reform–once untouchable—is hot, with the GOP uniquely positioned for the fight. “The Democrats are still afraid of a Willie Horton moment,” says Grover Norquist, who heads Americans for Tax Reform. “Everyone’s been terrified of being the person to legalize crack.” For reform to succeed politically, he says, it needs to be led by Republicans—“the Nixon in China phenomenon.”
It’s also a Texas phenomenon. The Lone Star State has adopted some of the most sweeping reforms of all, with its incarceration rate falling 9.2 percent and its serious crime rate down more than 10 percent between 2004-2008, according to the Texas Public Policy Foundation. Parole revocations are down 25 percent, and Texas is now seeing its lowest crime rate since 1973. If a rough-and-tumble cowboy state like Texas can pull it off, say reformers, others can as well.
Texas’s reforms didn’t come fast or easy. “I know what it feels like to beg for my life,” says state Senator John Whitmire, a conservative Democrat who in 1992 was robbed at gunpoint in his garage along with his wife and then 9-year-old daughter. He was the author of Texas’s famously tough penal code, which helped double the state’s prison population between 1993 and 2007. But he began to realize the system—his system—was broken. His grim personal experience gave him the bona fides not to look soft on crime. But in the effort to roll back his own policies he was missing a key ingredient: a Republican. Enter state Rep. Jerry Madden, a conservative and an engineer by training. He looked at the over-packed prisons as he would a pipe about to burst. “There seemed to be two answers to this from an engineering standpoint,” says Madden. “Let ’em out the door faster, or slow ’em down coming in.” Texas culture, he explains, “doesn’t allow us to let ’em go” so he, along with Whitmire, chose the latter path.
Many conservatives balk at the notion that fixing prisons is all about the bottom line. “This is a moral issue,” says Pat Nolan, vice president of Prison Fellowship, which ministers to prisoners using God, as explained on its website, “to overcome evil with good.” He describes watching conservatives like Norquist and Keene testify against mandatory minimums or for last year’s Fair Sentencing Act, which corrected harsh disparities in penalties between crack and powder cocaine, as “electrifying.” “It emboldened Republicans who were concerned about speaking out that they wouldn’t be alone.”
Not much new here for Grits readers, of course, but it's fun to watch these memes reaching the national stage.Keeping non-violent offenders out of prisons serves of other conservative interests: keeping families together (the more than 2 million Americans are currently in prison don’t pay child support or income tax payments, and mothers are increasingly incarcerated), getting more assets back to victims (prisoners pay almost nothing compared to those on probation), and keeping the streets safe by preventing non-violent offenders from hardening into real criminals while in prison. There are the Christian principles of forgiveness and redemption, and—of course—limiting government overreach (there are more than 4,000 federal criminal laws currently on the books) and what Norquist calls “creeping centralization.” Marc Levin, of the conservative Texas Public Policy Foundation, likes to say “there are 11 felonies in Texas just related to oysters. A woman in Texas was arrested for an overdue library book. We like arresting people but it’s getting kind of expensive.”