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Sing it, Newt! Gingrich and Allies Promote Criminal Justice Reform

Inimai Chettiar,
Brennan Center's Justice Program
Rebecca McCray,
Former Managing Editor,
American Civil Liberties Union
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January 13, 2011

It might seem hard to find something the left and right agree on these days, but we’re thrilled to see both sides of the political spectrum reaching an important consensus when it comes to our country’s correctional system. As a non-partisan organization, the ACLU has always realized that reforming the criminal justice system is not a political issue, but one of fairness, justice and now, economic necessity. We’re glad to see others getting that, too.

Last week, Newt Gingrich and Pat Nolan, president of Justice Fellowship, the criminal justice reform division of Prison Fellowship Ministries, put out a call in The Washington Post for their Republican brethren to pave the way to reduced prison populations and costs and join their “Right on Crime” campaign (read our take on the campaign’s launch here). Gingrich and Nolan boldly point out: “Our prisons might be worth the current cost if the recidivism rate were not so high, but . . . half of the prisoners released this year are expected to be back in prison within three years. If our prison policies are failing half of the time, and we know that there are more humane, effective alternatives, it is time to fundamentally rethink how we treat and rehabilitate our prisoners.”

Sing it, Newt!

Pat Robertson recently surprised his audience by questioning mandatory prison sentences for marijuana offenses on his show, The 700 Club.

For decades, progressives have been fighting for criminal justice reform, citing racial bias, lack of due process, ghastly prison conditions, executions of the innocent, and economic disparities in defense resources, among other problems. More recently, progressives have pointed out the pure inefficiency of our incarceration system: our nation spent a whopping $68 billion in 2010 on corrections — 300 percent more than 25 years ago — for a system that has not proven to increase public safety.

The current fiscal crisis has denied us the luxury of turning the other cheek to our country’s nasty incarceration habit. From California to New York, from New Jersey to Texas, huge deficits loom almost everywhere. It is difficult to fathom a positive spin on such tough times. But if we pause to consider the effect these financial challenges have had on the outlook of law and policymakers in the realm of our criminal justice system, it’s clear our economic woes are actually a unique opportunity to embrace a common objective.

Recent numbers from the Department of Justice show that our prison policies fail closer to two-thirds of the time. That means most of the $68 billion we spent on corrections in 2010 went to ineffective incarceration policies. Just think how much good those billions of dollars would have done had they gone toward helping our children struggling in public schools, our failing transportation infrastructure, students in need of loans to attend college, or just used to pay off our huge budget deficits.

Over the last several years, many states — including Texas, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, and New York — have been able to gather bipartisan support to pass reforms to reduce their prison populations. The emergence of campaigns like Right on Crime represent what Gingrich and Nolan rightly identify as “a seismic shift in the legislative landscape.” This is the very kind of shift that we need to bring about similar reforms throughout the rest of our states, and the time could not be better.

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