Republican presidential candidates are turning their sights on criminal justice reform, indicating that the issue has broken into the mainstream conservative movement as the party seeks inroads with minority voters.
Conservatives have been gravitating toward the criminal justice reform movement for some time, but the fact that the GOP contenders have zeroed in on it as a potent political issue is a sea change moment for reform activists, as well as those eager to see Republicans expand the party’s reach.
Derek Cohen, the deputy director of the conservative think tank Right on Crime, says the issue has moved to the forefront of the GOP primaries because it hits a conservative sweet spot.
“It resonates with different conservatives for different reasons,” Cohen said. “The fiscal argument is obvious — the U.S. spends billions on courts, police and correctional facilities. But you also have social conservatives concerned about what we’re doing to our communities, and libertarians suspect of government overreach.”
In addition, the issue could be an in for Republicans as they court the African-American and Hispanic voters that have traditionally been a stronghold of the Democratic Party.
President Obama won 93 percent of the black vote and 71 percent of the Hispanic vote in 2012. Obama noted in an address on criminal justice reform on Tuesday that it’s these minority groups that are disproportionately affected by the nation’s ballooning prison population.
“America’s demographics are changing at lighting speed, so Republicans are going to have to court minority voters, period,” said GOP strategist Ford O’Connell. “This is a smart way to do it. Will it move the needle on the 2016 electoral map? I don’t know. But at least there’s a realization that we can’t win the White House relying solely on white voters.”
On Thursday, New Jersey Gov. Chris ChristieChris ChristieSome in GOP begin testing party's lockstep loyalty to Trump The 10 Republicans most likely to run for president Chris Christie tries again MORE will deliver what his campaign is touting as a major policy address on the need for criminal justice reform. Christie’s campaign says the speech will focus on the need for treatment for those struggling with addiction, and on helping nonviolent drug offenders get back on their feet.
Christie’s speech comes on the heels of an emotional and well-received speech by former Texas Gov. Rick PerryRick PerryTrump's relocation of the Bureau of Land Management was part of a familiar Republican playbook What we've learned from the Meadows documents Trump war with GOP seeps into midterms MORE at the National Press Club in Washington earlier this month. Perry has been lauded as a leader on criminal justice reform in Texas, and The Wall Street Journal’s editorial board called his address “the speech of the campaign so far.”
In it, Perry argued that Republicans lost their “moral legitimacy as the party of Lincoln” by ignoring the plight of African-Americans, who he said the party has dismissed because “we found that we could win elections without” them.
Perry touted his record on crime as governor, saying that he closed prisons, reformed sentencing laws and reduced the crime rate to the lowest it's been since 1968 “while keeping kids out of jail.” He advocated for helping the addicted, rather than incarcerating them.
“Too many Texans were going to prison for nonviolent drug offenses and once they got out of prison, many found they couldn’t get a job because they had a criminal record,” Perry said. “The human soul yearns to be free — free from the chains of addiction, free from the chains of poverty. I am running for president because I want to make life better for all people, even those who don’t vote Republican.”
And Sen. Rand PaulRandal (Rand) Howard PaulRand Paul cancels DirecTV subscription after it drops OAN Trump slams Biden, voices unsubstantiated election fraud claims at first rally of 2022 Overnight Energy & Environment — Lummis holds up Biden EPA picks MORE (R-Ky.) has made expanding the party’s reach to minority voters through criminal justice reform and other social policies one of the primary pillars of his campaign.
He has prided himself on going “to places Republicans haven’t gone,” having taken his message that “liberal policies have failed our inner cities” to places like Ferguson, Mo., Detroit and Chicago.
At a speech in March at the historically black Bowie University in Baltimore, Paul argued that mandatory minimum sentencing laws must be reformed, and highlighted bipartisan bills he’s worked on to expunge the records of former criminals that would make it easier for them to find work.
Paul said the laws currently on the books have created a situation that is “somewhat like segregation.”
“There’s a racial outcome to this,” Paul said. “I don’t think it’s intentional, but it’s real, and we should do something about it.”
Grover Norquist, the president of the conservative group Americans for Tax Reform, said it’s a winning issue for Republicans that he hopes to hear more about from the candidates on the stump.
“It’s safe to talk about this now, and support for it has gone to a whole new level going into 2016,” he said. “I think it’s a winning issue for Republicans because it shows we can be tough on crime, but also smart on crime, and that when we say we’re for limited government and spending less, we mean it everywhere, even prison.”
The issue has moved to the forefront as Obama seeks to cement his legacy among the minority voters who helped propel him two terms in the White House.
On Tuesday, he delivered a speech urging Congress to pass legislation addressing the nation’s sentencing laws. The president argued that “mass incarceration makes our country worse off” and noted that it disproportionately affects minorities.
The speech came a day after Obama commuted the sentences of 46 people in federal prison for nonviolent drug crimes.
Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has similarly made criminal sentencing reform a centerpiece of her early campaign, arguing that there is something “profoundly wrong” with the system “when a third of all black men face the prospect of prison in their adult lifetime.”
There are also bipartisan groups presently working in both chambers of Congress on reform legislation.
“It’s certainly encouraging to see politicians on both sides of the aisle paying attention,” said Jonathan Blanks, a research associate at the libertarian-leaning think tank Cato Institute.
“I can’t speak as to how effective this will be for Republicans as they seek minority voters, but it’s long overdue,” he continued. “For a long time Republicans wrote off the black vote, so here’s a place where they’re making an honest effort. But it’s going to be a long-term strategy for them and they have work to do just to get more minority voters to pay attention to them.”