Can Conservatives Make Criminal Justice Reform Happen?

Conservatives and Republicans are trying to make the criminal justice system more fair. But the system is still killing people.

"The primary purpose of government is to protect liberty, and to protect people's rights," said Marc Levin, policy director for Right on Crime. The conservative criminal justice reform initiative, launched in 2010, hosted a briefing on Capitol Hill last week titled "The Success of Conservative Criminal Justice Reform," with a focus on overcriminalization and ending mandatory minimum sentencing for drug offenses.

That was Tuesday. Later that night, two police officers shot and killed Alton Sterling outside a convenience store in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. The day after that, Philando Castile was shot to death by police in a suburb of St. Paul, Minnesota, allegedly while reaching for his license and registration. His girlfriend was beside him. Her 4-year-old daughter was in the backseat.

Conservatives and the Obama administration are joined in saying the systems that have put 2.2 million Americans behind bars badly need reforming, but until that happens, those same systems are still at work — with lives on the line. Levin believes that conservatives can take on issues that have divided the nation like mandatory minimum sentencing or overcriminalization and succeed. "If someone is harmed by a violent offense, we should hold them accountable," he told MTV News. "But we should also hold the criminal justice system accountable."

Right on Crime's briefing featured speakers like conservative stalwart (and one of George W. Bush’s earliest supporters) Grover Norquist, representing Americans for Tax Reform, who explained that his commitment to criminal justice reform hearkened back to an early interest in criminal justice: As a high schooler, he’d watch trials and meet with prisoners on Friday nights. Norquist "came back into it" after beginning his political career (including coauthoring the Contract With America in 1994), "as [he] realized the challenges of overcriminalization."

"Everything was a federal law, regulations were being enforced as law," Norquist said (for example, in Washington, D.C., police can arrest you for not picking up dog poop). Norquist is also concerned with the practice of civil asset forfeiture, by which law enforcement can seize — and sell, and profit from — property and cash they believe was part of a crime. This can include your car, your life savings, or even your house. Citing cases like that of Willie Horton and Massachusetts dropping the death penalty, Norquist believes that liberals have lost the ability to make criminal justice reform happen. "They couldn’t be a part of the discussion," he said. "They didn’t take protecting victims seriously."

Conservatives like Norquist and Kentucky Senator Rand Paul have voiced support for reforms for a simple reason: They believe that the government, including its criminal justice system, is way too big. From 1980 to 2013, the amount spent on state and local prisons more than quadrupled to an estimated $80 billion a year. The U.S. incarceration rate is five times the global average, in part because, according to conservatives, there are too many laws. A lot of the time, those incarcerated because of these laws are black, or poor, people trying to survive and getting punished for it in a way that wealthier — and whiter — people might not.

"We have a big problem, more broadly, with people being incarcerated and penalized essentially because they’re poor," Levin said. "We have to focus on the purpose of the criminal justice system: protecting people’s rights and public safety."

Levin told MTV News that his work on criminal justice reform began in 2005. "We really come out of core conservative principles," he said. "Personal responsibility, not being too tough on taxpayers, and keeping families together." He added that for many people, especially nonviolent offenders, prison time made them more likely to commit offenses, not less. Ten thousand people are released from state and federal prisons every week, and three-fourths of state prisoners released in 2005 were arrested again within five years. But, he said, conservatives engaged in criminal justice reform are also focused on victims of crime, and making sure that restitution is made to them, not to the government — which he sees as a "revenue-generating model."

Mark Holden, senior vice-president and general counsel for Koch Industries, has worked on these issues with CEO Charles Koch for more than a decade. Charles Koch and his brother, David, are best known for funding conservative causes nationwide, but on criminal justice reform, they’ve found surprising common ground with liberals. "What we see on the left and the right is a two-tiered society," he told MTV News. "And it’s most prominent in the criminal justice system. If you’re wealthy and connected, you experience a much different justice system than someone who’s poor, or even working-class, middle-class, a small-business owner. But if you have resources, you’re probably going to be OK, and if you don’t, you’re probably not going to be OK. And that’s really completely unacceptable."

Norquist quote

Groups like Right on Crime have had some success, particularly in red states. Texas has been a leader, closing prisons and making it easier for former felons to reintegrate into society. Norquist believes a state by state approach is more effective. "We didn’t come to D.C. and say, ‘We have a theory, let’s force it on the country,’" he said. "Other states picked up on it, and they’re doing it step by step. If you ask them to eat the whole thing at once, they’ll gag."

There has been a kind of harmony between conservatives and liberals on these issues. Following a briefing on Wednesday on the Obama administration’s My Brother’s Keeper initiative, which is focused on the needs of young black men, senior presidential adviser Valerie Jarrett said that "we have extraordinarily strong bipartisan support for criminal justice reform," with a special focus on three areas: reducing mandatory minimum sentences on nonviolent drug offenses; helping prepare ex-offenders to reenter society and "lead law-abiding, productive lives"; and ensuring community safety.

"There’s a recognition," Jarrett told MTV News, "that the current system is inhumane and unsustainable ... We all need to ensure that we are having the punishment fit the crime, and that when people have paid their debt to society and earned a second chance, we give them that second chance."

But there’s a problem here. While conservative and liberal forces are joined in fighting for criminal justice reform, the system remains relatively unchanged in many places. Even as groups like Right on Crime are working on the state and local level to change sentencing recommendations and introduce drug courts, more than 500 people have been killed by police — the front line of the criminal justice system — this year. Many of them have been poor, many of them have been black, and many of them have been mentally ill. In Ferguson, Missouri, even after a federal investigation following the Michael Brown shooting, the city has continued to profit off excessive fines for nonviolent offenses and arresting people who can’t afford to pay.

And some conservatives are beginning to see what black Americans have been saying for decades: Our criminal justice system is remarkably unjust, especially to people of color. In a recent essay for, Leon Wolf pointed out that minority communities have long recognized that police and authorities often go unpunished for offenses committed against those minorities — and a lot of white people don’t care. "A huge, overwhelming segment of America does not really give a damn what cops do in the course of maintaining order because they assume (probably correctly) that abuse at the hands of police will never happen to them," he writes.

When asked why this was starting to change, Wolf told MTV News that the proliferation of video evidence is key. "I think previously, when black people would complain about being treated a certain way by police, this audience would not believe it because it was inconsistent with the way police behaved toward them and so it was assumed that this treatment was mostly a fabrication by criminals who wanted to get out of facing their punishment by claiming ‘police brutality,’" he said. "It's a lot more difficult to maintain that belief in the face of so much video evidence to the contrary — although some people are certainly willing to try."

It is more difficult — and more conservatives are beginning to speak out and take action, both about criminal justice reform and about racial disparities in law enforcement. Wolf says race is critical to the discussion. "It's pretty much impossible to tackle a problem until you acknowledge it exists," he said. "It helps explain to people — especially whites — why people say these things about cops when they've never seen a cop behave this way."

But while the nation calls for and waits on criminal justice reform, the system hasn’t waited. Instead, it has continued apace — arresting, charging, imprisoning, fining, and with regularity, killing.

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