Does the Road to Prison Reform Wind Through the Right Wing?

Things have moved slowly on Capitol Hill. Now, NAACP says conservative allies may speed things up.

By Shani O. Hilton Jul 15, 2011

Last week, we rounded up [five prison reform bills that are getting very little attention]( but could make a world of difference to those caught in the wake of the decades-long drug war. There’s no scarcity of ideas for slowing America’s remarkable rate of incarceration. But reform advocates say that, while things have moved slowly, the idea of shrinking our prisons has gained serious traction in recent years, in part due to bipartisan efforts. Hilary O. Shelton, NAACP Washington bureau director and senior vice president for advocacy, counts right-wing advocacy as a sign of forward movement in the reform battle."We’re seeing more bipartisan support for these issues," he says. Pat Nolan, a self-described "conservative Republican" and a longtime advocate of prison reform, is an example. The former California state assemblyman spent more than two years in prison in the 1990s for racketeering. Today, Nolan works toward criminal justice reform as vice president of Prison Fellowship. And he says that while it’s taken time to get conservatives to come around on prison reform, aiming at their wallets seems to help. "It’s not conservative to continue to vote for giving a blank check to prison systems," Nolan quips. Nolan was among the movement conservatives who joined the NAACP in [rolling out its April report on over-incarceration](; he was joined by well-known conservatives like Grover Norquist. The high rate of incarceration has led Nolan and other pro-reform conservatives to start trying to reach those on the right with the line, "Prisons are for people we’re afraid of, but we fill them up with people we’re just mad at." Drug offenders and other non-violent criminals are filling up cells, Nolan says, and "if they’re not a danger to society, there’s no reason to put them in prison." Instead, he advocates for programs that would help people addicted to drugs get treatment and release non-violent offenders to the custody of their communities. And he even [wrote an op-ed]( with GOP presidential hopeful Newt Gingrich advocating for reform. Nolan adds that a few years ago, when people began speculating that the recession might prompt conservatives to consider reform, he didn’t believe it. "I was wrong on that," he says now. "The tight economic times have forced conservatives to consider the cost of locking up so many people." There’s the emotional cost, too, Shelton says. Over-incarceration "has been so destructive to so many Americans–individuals, families, and entire communities. We’re overly taxed on our justice system." Nolan agrees. "There are a lot of folks who have broken laws, but they’re not a danger to us," he says. No one "loses sleep over" people who commit welfare fraud or pass bad checks–so why imprison them? Shelton is heartened by recent victories, like the U.S. Sentencing Commission’s decision to retroactively apply a provision from last year’s Fair Sentencing Act that would give [12,000 inmates the opportunity to seek a sentence reduction]( "We feel better about things moving ahead," Shelton says, and he draws a parallel between prison reform efforts today and the increase in support for hate crimes legislation, which began to snowball in the 1990s after years of work. "Legislation takes a long time," says Nolan, echoing Shelton. "I worked on crack-powder [disparity] for 17 years." He remains dubious, however, about the passage of bills like the Virginia Democrat Bobby Scott’s Fair Sentencing Act of 2011 (a law that would completely erase the crack-powder sentencing disparity; last year’s congressional reform lowered it to 18-to-1). Shelton blames the slow movement on legislators who know reform was a good idea, but are afraid of the political backlash–a "nervousness" that’s fading now, thanks in part to support from both sides. "Sometimes it does take too long," he says. "And it is taking too long." But, he says, Americans–86 percent of whom, [according to one poll](, think the U.S. has too many non-violent offenders in prison–should be engaging their legislators. "They all need to hear from the American people."