For years, America’s political leaders—many of whom were conservative Republicans—thought that the best way to lower crime and keep the public safe was to pass harsh sentencing laws that locked away even the lowest level non-violent drug offenders for years. This “lock ’em up and throw away the key” attitude did little to stop crime but did firmly cement the U.S. as the industrialized nation that incarcerates the most people.


Now, with state and federal budgets stretched to their limits and lawmakers deciding whether or not to raise taxes or risk running out of money, conservative political groups are seemingly reversing direction on how they approach the criminal justice system. Historically, liberals have long advocated the use of alternative sentencing methods but now Republicans have joined the bandwagon.

They’re not changing course because they’ve seen the light and realize offender rehabilitation is critical. Rather, they’re exploring ‘softer’ approaches to justice because they’re worried about the increasingly high costs of running prisons.

Some of the programs spearheaded in Republican states look promising and could possibly serve as national models. A recent New York Times article discussed a Texas law that now sends non-violent offenders into drug treatment instead of prison. The state has also strengthened its programs that help keep ex-offenders from returning to prison. Because of this new approach, the Texas prison is spending far less than it did in the past, state taxpayers have saved hundreds of millions of dollars and violent crime in the state is at the lowest it has been in 30 years.

Texas isn’t the only conservative state in the nation trying this new approach; South Carolina, Ohio and Arkansas are also reforming their justice systems, all in the name of saving money. Notable Republican leaders, including former House Speaker Newt Gingrich; Edwin Meese, attorney general during the Reagan administration and Asa Hutchinson, former director of the Drug Enforcement Administration, are all leading the “conservative prison reform movement.”

Sometimes people or groups get on the right side of an issue much later than one would like. But conservatives finally understand that investing in rehabilitation is a much smarter way to spend taxpayer money. Focusing on drug treatment, psychological counseling, education, job training and not just imprisonment doesn’t just save money—it keeps communities safer.

It’s unfortunate that it took an economic crisis for Republicans to get to this point. But they’re here now…here’s hoping the reform keeps moving in the right direction.

(Judge Greg Mathis is vice president of Rainbow PUSH and a national board member of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.)

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