Thursday, January 27, 2005

A new right, or just the right moment?

Doc Berman has questioned whether there might be a "new right" developing in support of drug treatment in lieu of incarceration and other sentencing reforms, noting that Republican senators and Governors have recently adopted such positions, plus a new poll commissioned by FAMM indicating changing public attitudes.

There's evidence of that trend here in Texas, or, more accurately, evidence of a new sense of bipartisanship and pragmatism on the subject in the face of a looming crisis.

In 2003, Republican state
Rep. Ray Allen sponsored HB 2668, a new law signed by Governor Rick Perry that mandated treatment not incarceration for first-time low-level drug offenders. Allen was then chairman of the House Corrections Committee, on which he still sits. His primary campaign issues are abortion rights and guns, and he is co-sponsoring a Texas constitutional amendment to define marriage as between a man and a woman. But Governing magazine cited Rep. Allen for his willingness to work with unlikely allies to promote criminal justice reform. Recently he was quoted hoping to spend savings on incarceration to pay for healthcare. (Conflict alert: He was also a campaign client of mine during the last election cycle.)

More church groups are coming around on criminal justice reform. The other day
I wrote about Restorative Justice Ministries, a prison ministries network that connects hundreds of churches across the state. A headline in the Huntsville Item featuring that group announced, "State should scrap its current system says local prison ministries official." In it, RJM leader Emmett Solomon argued that "incarceration is being overused in Texas and it is having detrimental results for both families and society."

That's not a traditional Republican message. It's a message that appeals to grass roots religious conservatives, not necessarily economic conservatives. The Lord may "heareth the poor and despiseth not his prisoners," as it says in the Psalms, but typically one can't say that of the Chamber of Commerce. If you want forgiveness and redemption, go to church. A lot of ex-prisoners do.

The other happy development that's bolstered Berman's "new right" in Texas has been that a few key elements from law enforcement, who recognize when something's gone terribly wrong, have been willing to stand up and call for change. I wrote yesterday about
Richard Watkins, the retiring warden of the Holliday Unit in Huntsville, whose commitment has always stood out. Former undercover drug task force officer Barbara Markham stood tall to criticize flawed drug interdiction practices in the face of professional backlash, and lent reformers invaluable understanding of how the system works. Plus a lot of good cops and other folks in the justice system are speaking up internally, and trying to do the right thing from the inside.

Back at the Legislature. Texas House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee Chairman Terry Keel is a Republican former sheriff and former assistant district attorney who is a ruthless proponent of the death penalty, and all the trappings. But after the
Tulia episode, Keel decided Texas' drug task forces' poor command structure was to blame. Upon studying the situation, the Interim report from his committee headed into the 79th (2005) Legislature recommended abolishing the whole drug task force system. Keel has also filed legislation to force counties to release information about executed search warrants that's supposed to be public.

The reasons for this shift are complex - part pragamatism (full prisons), part ideology (the ascendance of religious conservatives for whom themes of redemption and forgiveness are acceptable), and part politics (the state's largest Latino group, the League of United Latin American Citizens has made sentence restructuring a priority). Throw in a healthy libertarian animosity for Big Brother. Together, they constitute a more diverse and interesting mix than Democratic stereotypes usually allow, even some new opportunities on criminal justice that just weren't there when the Democrats were in power.

Whether they constitute a "new right," it seems that the right people might be in the right place at the right time to make a difference in Texas. They're certainly about to get their chance.

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