Don't Look Now: The Right is Leading the Way To Saner Drug Policies

By Edmund Newton 04/03/14

After years of intolerance, some leading conservatives and red states are now edging past liberals to reform zero-tolerance drug laws to favor treatment over prison.


Four years ago, Craig DeRoche was one of the big shots of Republican politics in Michigan. A six-year member of the State House of Representatives, he had earned a reputation as one of the state’s fiercest fiscal watchdogs, leading eventually to a lofty assignment as Speaker of the House. He was co-chairman of Mitt Romney’s Michigan campaign committee in 2008 and a full-fledged member of the state’s no-nonsense, tax-averse, budget-shaving conservative establishment.

Then, one evening in 2010, after he had left the legislature to start his own insurance business, DeRoche was arrested on suspicion of drunk driving. Police in Saline, Michigan, said they found DeRoche so inebriated that he couldn't stand up without assistance. A breath test showed his blood-alcohol content was more than three times the legal limit.

It was the beginning of a radical career change for DeRoche – one that mirrors a remarkable change in direction for the American Right. After another alcohol-related arrest – this one a headline-making incident involving gun charges as well – a chastened, recovery-minded DeRoche found himself doing volunteer work for Justice Fellowship, ex-Watergate conspirator Chuck Colson’s national organization for reform of the criminal justice system based on Christian principles.

“I pinch hit for Chuck at a U.S. Senate hearing,” recalls DeRoche, a bulky man with short ginger-colored hair that’s going to gray. “I gave a speech about conservative politics and addiction. Afterward, I told Chuck, `If I can help, I’ll come down as often as I can.’ I thought I'd be a volunteer speaker. But Chuck said, 'God has a bigger plan for you. You’re needed here.’”

As DeRoche immersed himself in the movement to offer those caught in the American criminal justice system a path to redemption (he soon became the head of the organization, when Colson died seven months after DeRoche came aboard), the political right was gravitating toward a similar stance. The numbers of imprisoned Americans had snowballed at such a pace behind harsh anti-drug laws that even staunchly tough-on-crime Republicans, who had long rallied behind the mantra “criminals behind bars cannot harm the general public,” were beginning to look for alternatives.

There are now more than 1.5 million people in custody in state and federal prisons, according to Bureau of Justice statistics; add those locked up in jails awaiting trial and the total rises to 2.2 million. The U.S. has not only the highest imprisoned population in the world but also by far the highest number of prisoners per capita, with 716 per 100,000 people. The next highest rates are in Rwanda with 492 per 100,000 and Russia with 475. 

The U.S. totals include about half a million who have been incarcerated for drug offenses, most of them serving longer time under mandatory minimum sentencing, according to the Sentencing Project, the national research and advocacy group. More than half of those in federal prison are there for drug crimes. Corrections officials have offered educated guesses that as many as 70 or 75% of those under their custody have committed crimes for which drugs or alcohol were a factor.

It’s not cheap keeping people locked up. The burden of enforcing all those anti-drug laws has prompted state expenditures on corrections to go up by a factor of 8, from $6.7 billion in 1985 to $53.3 billion in 2012.

By now, reforming the old lock-'em-up-and–throw-away-the-key program is the cause celebre of the moment for conservatives. In recent months, there have been almost daily reports in mainstream media about this issue that has suddenly drawn extraordinary bipartisanship. In March, the Conservative Political Action Conference – an annual gathering point for the most conservative of conservatives - scheduled a special forum on criminal justice reform, with Grover Norquist and Texas Governor Rick Perry especially outspoken in favor of reducing sentences for non-violent offenders and reducing prison populations.

“You want to talk about real conservative governance?” said Perry, whose state is known worldwide as Action Central for capital punishment, with more than 260 prisoners lethally injected under Perry’s watch alone. “Shut prisons down. Save that money. Stop the recidivism rates—lower them. That’s what can happen with these drug courts.”

In fact, Texas has actually shut down one prison, because of declining conviction rates and, since 2007, cut its prison population by 11% through diversion programs like drug courts and probation.

Criminal justice reform has created some very odd bedfellows. 

Tea Party principals like U.S. Senators Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and Rand Paul (R-Kentucky) are eagerly joining forces with staunch liberals like Senators Richard Durbin (D-Illinois) and Al Franken (D-Minnesota) to co-sponsor reform measures. Conservative governors like Perry in Texas and Nathan Deal in Georgia are opening the doors of state prisons for non-violent offenders, many of them caught in the zero-tolerance anti-drug laws of the 1980s, or sending them to drug courts where they’re offered treatment rather than incarceration.

Even Newt Gingrich, who once argued fervently for big expenditures to build new prisons as part of his 1994 Contract With America agenda in the 1990s, talks about the need to ratchet back the “astronomical growth in prison population.”

In truth, Republicans often outgun Democrats nowadays in their zeal for reform. While incarceration rates were falling in Perry’s red state by 20%, largely because of sentencing reforms, blue state California faced a crisis of its own. Gov. Jerry Brown tried to resist a federal court order to reduce its overcrowded prisons by releasing non-violent offenders, vetoing a bill to reduce sentences for those convicted of low-level drug offenses. (The state eventually transferred a lot of non-violent prisoners to county lock-ups, but it’s still under federal pressure to release 5,000 of its total of about 120,000.) 

At the Congressional level, however, the new tune reform-minded members are whistling is: bipartisanship.

For those who have remarked on rampant ideological face-offs in the U.S. capital, especially during the Obama administration, the outpouring of bipartisanship is almost freakish.

At a recent Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, Senator Durbin smiled warmly at Marc Levin from the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a conservative think tank, and confessed that Levin was making him “very nervous.”

“We keep inviting you to these hearings, this Texas conservative, and I find myself agreeing with you more and more,” Durbin said.

It’s contagious, this drive for reform. High-profile conservatives are even boasting openly of their bona fides as longtime critics of tough justice. Anti-tax activist Norquist talks of visiting lifers 10 years ago at Walpole Correctional Institution in Massachusetts and pressing fellow conservatives on prison reform. Cruz, who has put his name on a sentencing reform bill introduced by Durbin, reminisced at the Judiciary Committee hearing about his pro-bono work for John Thompson, a wrongly accused Death Row resident in Louisiana.

“It was a powerful experience personally, getting to know Mr. Thompson,” Cruz said.

All of this has led to some promising legislative initiatives. Two reform bills are pending in the Judiciary Committee. One would allow judges the discretion to override mandatory minimum sentences in lower-level drug cases and spread the effects of an earlier bill to reduce sentences for crack cocaine offenders. This is Durbin’s bill, with co-sponsorship by 16 other senators, including Cruz, Paul and Mike Lee (R-Utah), another prominent Tea Party Senator. Another bill would set up an early release system, along with skills training, for low-risk prisoners.

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Edmund Newton is a Washington DC based writer, formerly on staff at the LA Times, Newsday and the New York Post. He has written for People, Time, Ladies Home Journaland Essence among other publications. Find him on Linkedin.