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Conservatives seek to lead on prison reform

At first blush, the Midland-based Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a conservative think tank, might seem an unlikely cheerleader for prison reform.

Michael LaFaive, a fiscal analyst for the Mackinac Center, reaches back four decades for an analogy about what he sees happening on the political right.

“They said only Nixon can go to the China,” LaFaive said, referring to the 1972 diplomatic trip by President Richard Nixon. It was thought by many only a Republican president could broach new relations with the communist nation without incurring a political backlash.

“This could be a similar case.”

LaFaive, like a growing number of conservative thinkers, is convinced old truisms about crime and punishment deserve re-examination. Does it makes sense to lock up as many people as Michigan does?

“Michigan spends way too much on prisons. There are much less expensive ways of imposing punishment on bad people and making the streets safer than we are doing now,” LaFaive said.

It is worth noting that in the past few years, there has perhaps been no more vocal legislative advocate for prison reform in Michigan than GOP state Rep. Joe Haveman of Holland. The Appropriations Committee chairman represents one of the most conservative districts in the state.

This national evolution in conservative philosophy was on display earlier this month at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) outside Washington D.C. Standing up for a serious look at criminal justice reform were Bernie Kerik, police commissioner under New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, Texas Gov. Rick Perry and limited government advocate Grover Norquist.

Perry criticized punitive mandatory minimum sentences and the pluses of drug courts that send addicts into treatment instead of prison.

“You want to talk about real conservative governance? Shut prisons down. Save that money,” Perry said. “Stop the recidivism rates – lower them.”

Indeed, conservative Texas has provided a surprising national blueprint for creative alternatives to prison. Faced in 2007 with the prospect of spending $2 billion to add 17,000 more prison beds, Texas legislators instead decided to spend a fraction of that on drug courts and rehabilitative programs for addicts and mentally ill prisoners. The state also invested in reducing the caseloads of parole and probation officers to better monitor former inmates, and to provide more job training programs for inmates.

Its state prison population has fallen nearly 20 percent since then.

In Ann Arbor, the Michigan Criminal Justice Program – an arm of the American Friends Service Committee – has been advocating prison reform and prisoner rights for years. Natalie Holbrook, its program director, welcomes the apparent change of heart within the conservative movement.

“I am thankful to have allies in the work we are doing,” Holbrook said.

She noted that a couple decades ago Democratic presidential candidate Michael Dukakis took a political pounding for the case of Willie Horton, the convicted Massachusetts murderer who was released on a weekend furlough and the following year committed assault, armed robbery and rape. The incident was turned into a 1988 television attack ad and served as a cautionary tale for Democrats wary of being labeled “soft on crime.”

If nothing else, Holbrook hopes the push for reform by Haveman and other conservatives will embolden legislators from both sides of the aisle to take stands that have been politically toxic in the past.

“I think there are some people holding onto that tough-on-crime (stand). But I think the right is shifting. I think it's not tough on crime anymore, it's smart on crime.”

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