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.”
Former New York City Police Chief Bernard Kerik provided a unique perspective on the criminal-justice system. Besides spending a career sending people to prison, he also spent three years in jail after pleading guilty to eight felony tax and false statement charges.
“If somebody told me before I went to prison that I would meet some really good people, I would’ve laughed in their face. The reality is I met some really good men, good fathers, and good family men,” Kerik said. “They made a mistake. Some of them don’t even know what they did. They went to prison because the system is broken.”
Kerik mentioned two of his fellow inmates who had been locked up for selling a pair of night vision goggles and a whale’s tooth online. Pat Nolan, director of the American Conservative Union’s Center for Criminal Justice, also noted some of the bizarre crimes people have been imprisoned for, including “packing a lobster in plastic bags rather than cardboard” and “inadvertently mislabeling a shipment of orchids.”
Perry stressed the importance of second chances for these people.
“The idea that we lock people up, throw them away, and never give them a chance of redemption is not what America is about,” Perry said. “Being able to give someone a second chance is very important.”
Kerik also emphasized rehabilitation, saying many of these people have a hard time reentering society and rebuilding a productive life after spending years in a “training ground for thuggery and criminality.”
“You wanna take all the societal values out of a person…and you wanna infuse them with institutional values, and then let them go back to society,” he said. “It is wrong for this country and it is wrong for this party.”