The gap between Democrats and Republicans on the budget may be growing by the hour, but elsewhere in D.C. today, conservatives and progressives offered showy agreement on one fiscal matter: We spend too much money to lock people up.
A bevy of big name conservatives, including Newt Gingrich, lined up alongside the NAACP today to promote the organization’s latest report, highlighting racial disparities in incarceration rates and the imbalance between prison funding and education spending around the country.
“We’ve all been working to build left-right coalitions for the better part of the decade, and it’s all really come to a head in this moment,” NAACP President Benjamin Todd Jealous said in a phone interview. Jealous is credited with emphasizing criminal justice reform in the organization’s work since taking over as its youngest-ever president. “This is the most ambitious effort in this space yet, a whole scale review and reform of the nation’s criminal justice policies.”
Jealous appeared at a press conference in Washington, D.C., this afternoon with several conservative supporters, including former President Bush’s Secretary of Education Rod Paige, conservative movement celebrity Grover Norquist, and Mike Jiminez of the executive committee of Corrections USA, which represents corrections officers nationwide.
“For a long time conservatives have been hard on every government bureaucracy, and were frankly turning a blind eye to prisons and defense,” said Pat Nolan, a conservative politician and vice president of the Prison Fellowship. “For every dollar we spend we should get an increase in public safety. But the fact is we’ve locked up a lot of non-dangerous people, who are coming out of our dangerous prison system more dangerous than they came in.”
When asked if he expected to receive criticism from other conservatives for siding with the NAACP, Nolan said, “Yes, but they’re right on this issue, and we’ll stand with anybody whose right on this issue.”
Nolan cited the Second Chance Act as another example of left-right coalitions working well together on issues that really matter.
But Nolan wasn’t alone at the NAACP’s side. Potential 2012 presidential candidate Newt Gingrich sent a letter of support to be read at the press conference.
“If our prison policies are failing half of the time, and we know that there are more humane alternatives—especially alternatives that do not involve spending billions more on more prisons—it is time to fundamentally rethink how we treat and rehabilitate our prisoners,” Gingrich wrote. “Conservatives, such as myself, should not consider criminal justice reform off-limits, and I am pleased that our movement has begun to tackle these issues head-on.”
The NAACP’s report tracks the shift of state funds away from education towards the criminal justice system, profiling six major cities and several states in-depth. NAACP’s main findings are at this point well-known—the disproportionate jailing of poor and minority people, huge disparities in state spending on jail systems versus education systems. Here’s one of the more eye-grabbing stats: In 20 years, nationwide spending on higher education increased by 21 percent, while corrections funding increased by 127 percent. Even during the recession, education budgets plummeted, while a majority of states increased the the amount they spent on prisons.
The report is part of NAACP’s “Smart and Safe Campaign”, a nationwide effort to influence state budgets and reform the nation’s criminal justice system by moving prison spending to education. NAACP is also launching a multi-city billboard campaign that will feature telling statistics, such as the fact that the U.S. accounts for 5 percent of the world’s population but 25 percent of its prisoners.