NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. – Texas Gov. Rick Perry appeared alongside other conservatives on a panel at CPAC Friday where they laid out their vision for criminal-justice reform.
The panelists framed the issue in conservative terms: a smaller role of big government in the criminal-justice system, the fiscal responsibility of reduced prison sentences, and the Christian belief of redemption.
Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform, said this is an issue where conservatives have led in the nation.
“The establishment press wouldn’t expect to hear a discussion on criminal-justice reform at CPAC,” Norquist said. “Our friends on the left have zero credibility when it comes to reducing criminal activity and punishing people who deserved to be punished.”
Norquist, an advocate for criminal-justice reform, said he has testified before several state legislatures about the issue.
“If these ideas hadn’t started in Texas, it would be a lot harder to sell them,” he said. “If I walked in and said, ‘this is a really good idea they did in Vermont’ – they would laugh at you, even if it was a good idea. Only coming from the right can serious criminal justice that saves taxpayers’ money and saves American lives happen.”
Other prominent Republicans that once supported tough-on-crime stances have also embraced criminal-justice reform. Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, former Attorney General Edwin Meese, and Norquist, to name a few, have all spoken in favor of reforming the criminal-justice system. Newt Gingrich, who as a representative in the early 1990s vowed to put more Americans behind bars, now says the U.S. criminal-justice system is broken and the nation can no longer afford business as usual with prisons. Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) has made reform of mandatory minimum sentences a priority in recent months.
Perry talked about unnecessarily punitive mandatory minimum sentences and the advantages of drug courts that send addicts into treatment instead of the prison system.
“You want to talk about real conservative governance? Shut prisons down. Save that money,” Perry said. “Stop the recidivism rates – lower them. That’s what can happen with these drug courts.”
Perry and other Republican governors have supported tough-on-crime platforms in the last decade that have led the country on issues like sentencing reform and prison recidivism. States like Arkansas, Georgia, South Carolina, and Texas are spending less money on keeping people behind bars and instead focusing resources on preparing offenders to reenter society successfully.
During Perry’s time as governor, Texas has become both the nation’s leading innovator on reform for nonviolent offenders and the top user of the death penalty in the U.S.
“If you wanna go and murder somebody, Texas might not be the place you wanna go do that,” Perry said. “We’re not a soft-on-crime state, but I hope we are also seen as a smart-on-crime state.”
Texas’ prison capacity is at 96 percent. In 2011, Texas closed a prison because it could not be filled thanks to the declining incarceration rate.
“There aren’t many things that the president of the United States and his attorney general and I agree about – you know what I mean?” he said. “But President Obama and Attorney General Holder both pointed to Texas and what we’re doing with our drug courts and our recidivism rates, and our prison systems. …The crime rate in Texas is as low as it’s been since 1967.”