The New Compassionate Conservatism: Republicans Get Soft on Crime

Since the late 1960s, the Republican party has used fear of crime to win elections. Now, the party seems prepared to use compassion for non-violent criminals to do the same. 

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Since the late 1960s, the Republican party has used fear of crime to win elections. Now, the party seems prepared to use compassion for non-violent criminals to do the same. With new Republican champions of judicial reform and lawmakers backing two bills aimed at rolling back punishments for low-risk offenders, Republicans are ready to show compassion in 2014.

It's not just libertarian Sen. Rand Paul advocating for reform. Sens. Ted Cruz, Mike Lee, John Cornyn, and Rob Portman have all been instrumental in bringing sentencing reform to light. At CPAC this month, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, Club for Growth's Grover Norquist, and former New York City police commissioner Bernie Kerik advocated for reducing prison terms and hiring ex-cons. And Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee backed two bills that would cut down mandatory sentences for drug offenses and establishing an early-release program for low-risk offenders. 

The Republican about-face on criminal justice reform makes the issue one of the few that both parties can agree on. (On Thursday, Attorney General Eric Holder threw his support behind a plan to reduce minimum sentences for low-level drug offenders.) Reform, Ohio's Portman argues, aligns with the ideals the GOP has had all along. Social conservatives see shorter sentences and early-release programs as compassionate; fiscal conservatives see putting people in jail for less time as money saved.

Portman tells The New York Times,

It’s a really inefficient use of resources — that’s the Republican, fiscal conservative side of this. Then on the other side of it is: What do you end up with? You end up with broken families. You end up with communities that are being plagued with more violence and more crime. And you end up with people not reaching their God-given potential.

At CPAC, Perry told the crowd, "The idea that we lock people up, throw them away, and never give them a chance of redemption is not what America is about. Being able to give someone a second chance is very important." Norquist was quick to point out that criminal justice reform ideas "started in Texas." He's played up the idea that reform started in the states to sell it to conservative voters. It seems to be working, based on crowd response.

Paul, who has advocated for reform since arriving in Washington, thinks such measures are a way to reach out to minority voters (something he will keep talking about all the way to 2016). At an event for the conservative group American Principles Project in February, he told the crowd,

These are ideas not many Republicans have talked about before. I think if we talk about these ideas, we take them to the minority community, often the African-American and sometimes the Hispanic community — 3 out of 4 people in prison are black and brown! But if you look at surveys on who uses drugs, whites and blacks and Hispanic use at about the same rate. You don’t have as good an attorney if you don’t have money. Some of the prosecution has tended to go where it’s easier to prosecute people.

Paul's in agreement with President Obama here, who told The New Yorker in January that drug laws affect minorities disproportionately. Slate's Dave Weigel reports that the conservative crowd stayed with Paul, especially after he assured them he was talking about reducing minimum sentences, not legalizing hard drugs.

Paul is right that not many Republicans have talked about reform prior to 2013. As Weigel notes, "As recently as 2012, a pro-Mitt Romney super PAC could dunk on Rick Santorum by warning voters that the senator 'voted to let convicted felons vote.'" Times change.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has promised to bring the two bipartisan bills to the floor this year, which means criminal justice reform could be one of the few things this Congress actually accomplishes — at least in the Senate. Jeremy Haile, who's the federal advocacy counsel for the Sentencing Project, told the Times, "It’s really striking. Now [Republicans are] arguing the other way: who can be the smartest on crime."

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.