NATIONAL HARBOR, Md.—The rise of conservative sentiment in favor of prison reform, felon voting rights, and mandatory-minimum rollbacks has confounded the media. That’s to the advantage of the conservatives themselves. The idea that the GOP and the Reaganite movements are inherently “tough on crime” has made heads turn when someone—Rand Paul, typically—contradicts it.
But the counter-revolution isn’t obscure anymore. Tea Partiers and libertarians in Texas and Georgia, states now run completely by the Republican Party, have pushed their legislatures to embrace prison reform. The Texas Public Policy Foundation, a think tank whose Brendan Steinhauser became chairman of Sen. John Cornyn’s re-election bid, did the hard lifting in that state. For forty-five minutes, to the surprise of a distractable press corps, Rick Perry joined Grover Norquist onstage to explain why prison reform was a natural cause for the right.
Perry and Norquist were the draws, but the most captivating member of the panel was Bernie Kerik—former NYC police commissioner, former nominee to run DHS, former inmate. Kerik told of a class he taught in prison, where he encouraged a fellow prisoner to get a GED. “I’m black and I’m a felon,” the prisoner told him. No way was he getting a job. Conservatives had to get as outraged about this as they are by anything else that deletes a member of society.