Fiscal hawks team up with NAACP to press for prison reform

Leading fiscal conservatives and the largest liberal minority-rights group in the country are joining forces to try and cut back spending levels on prisons.

In one of the most unusual political pairings, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) has teamed up with the conservative Right on Crime group, which includes prominent fiscal hawks such as former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) and Grover Norquist to rein in prison spending and reduce the number of incarcerated non-violent offenders.

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Millions of taxpayer dollars would be saved by reforming non-violent prison sentencing guidelines for crimes such as probation violations or minor drug possession, the groups said.

The money saved by not imprisoning people guilty of these violations can be used more effectively by investing it into rehabilitation and preventative programs, they said.

The alliance, however, is somewhat divided on how specifically to use the potential savings. The NAACP wants to see the savings reinvested in educational programs, while the Right on Crime group is pushing to use the money to balance state budgets and fund crime prevention programs.

But those details will get hashed out down the road. The important thing, both groups say, is that they agree that the U.S. prison system needs to be reformed.

Norquist, the president of the conservative Americans for Tax Reform group, said the consensus is a signal that conservatives and Republicans can begin to lend their hand to the issue without having to be afraid that Democrats or liberals will attack them for being “soft on crime.”

“People haven’t been focusing on it as much because of the fear of being attacked,” Norquist told The Hill. “If you can reduce that fear – and Republicans are now focused on it and Republicans can take the lead on some of these things and liberals will say, ‘OK me too’ – there’s an opening with conservatives now focusing on it and that makes it easier to see political movement and the fact that everybody’s strapped for cash makes a lot of people willing to focus on it.”

Hilary Shelton, the Washington bureau director and senior vice president for advocacy with the NAACP, agreed, saying that Congress needs to prioritize its work on the issue before the 2012 campaign cycle gets too far under way.

“It’s not necessarily going to create a problem, but because that season is so unpredictable, hopefully with the kind of support this thing has coming out of the box they’ll see that this is one that can rise above that silly political season to be able to see it implemented into law,” Shelton said.

The NAACP pointed to a bill put forward by Sen. Jim Webb (D-Va.) that would establish a blue-ribbon commission to look at “every aspect” of the nation’s criminal justice system and look at reforms “from top to bottom,” according to a statement from Webb earlier this year. 

Although the measure has garnered the support of only one Republican, Sen. Lindsey Graham (S.C.), Shelton said he holds high hopes for its passage this year.

House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) helped put forward a nearly identical measure in the House last year.

The bipartisan push comes as the NAACP published a report this month titled, "Misplaced Priorities: Over Incarcerate, Under Educate," in which the group advises Congress to support youth violence reduction programs, reform sentencing and drug programs, and shorten prison terms in conjunction with GED programs for young offenders.

Taking a hard look at criminal justice issues saw a resurgence of support from both parties last year, when President Obama signed a bill that reduced the difference in prison sentences given to people convicted of handling crack cocaine versus powder cocaine.

The Congressional Black Caucus and civil rights groups had long championed the measure, saying that the mandatory minimum sentencing was unfairly directed at black people, who are more likely to be found with crack cocaine.

Lawmakers who supported the measure argued that the law providing for harsher sentences for crack cocaine charges, which had been in effect for 25 years, created a drastic increase in the number of drug offenders in prisons.

With Republican support, the measure passed through Congress overwhelmingly.

The NAACP and the Right on Crime group now hope that by combining their efforts, a broader look at reforming the criminal justice system is politically possible, as long as it doesn’t get thrust to the forefront of national politics in preparation for the 2012 congressional and presidential elections.

“This works as long as it’s not an issue,” Norquist said. “This moves forward as long as it doesn’t become an election issue. As soon as people start winning or losing elections on it, then people are going to back off and go back to their corners."

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