Norquist Sees Savings in Prison Reform

Posted April 6, 2011 at 6:30pm

Anti-tax advocate Grover Norquist has been standing with the tea partyers in recent months, but he is now also linking arms with one of the movement’s most vocal opponents.

When the NAACP releases a new report Thursday calling for prison reform, Norquist plans to offer a public, albeit qualified, endorsement of the idea of saving taxpayer dollars by reducing incarceration rates and prison terms.

“We’re keeping certain people in prison for how long — at $20,000 a year, $50,000 a year in California,” Norquist, who is president of Americans for Tax Reform and a self-identifying tea partyer, told Roll Call. “Does that make sense? Do you really want taxpayers paying that much?”

Despite their disagreement over how to spend the savings — Norquist prefers a tax refund to the NAACP’s suggestion of investing in public education — and on most other policy issues of the day, both sides say bipartisanship is key to changing incarceration policies.

“Conservatives can have a conversation here that can actually move the ball,” Norquist said. “Only the Republicans can come forward and talk about saving resources at the same time that you fight crime because nobody believes the Democrats are actually going to punish crime.”

NAACP President Benjamin Jealous argued that conservatives have to take the lead because, “so many Democrats have become reflexively afraid of appearing soft on crime.”

He added that the NAACP’s new report — called “Misplaced Priorities: Under Educate, Over Incarcerate” — is a timely answer to the “fiscal urgency” facing lawmakers. It makes the case the sentence reductions, rehabilitation alternatives and educational opportunities will help reduce the nation’s high prison population. To emphasize the point, the NAACP has purchased billboards inside airports and along major roads in cities such as Los Angeles, Philadelphia and Richmond that say, “Welcome to America, home to 5 percent of the world’s people and 25 percent of the world’s prisoners.”

“If you look at the state level, you can see Democrat-led states, Republican-led states all making common sense, what we would call progressive — but in the most basic ways they’re also conservative and libertarian — reforms to adopt a smarter, safer and more cost-efficient approach to criminal justice reform,” Jealous said. “We think it’s important to actually make that bipartisan support visible nationally.”

Norquist’s support, along with that of former Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) and former American Conservative Union Chairman David Keene, could help bring other conservatives and even tea partyers on board.

“If Grover has signed on to it, along with an NAACP recommendation, that’s as close as you get to a bridge-building opportunity and a bipartisan start to a policy issue,” said Leslie Paige, spokeswoman for the advocacy group Citizens Against Government Waste.

Tea party groups also signaled an interest, despite past hostility with the NAACP. Last year, the civil rights group said tea parties “have given platform to anti-Semites, racists and bigots.”

The situation appears to have changed somewhat since. According to Jealous, Texas has been “ground zero” for NAACP members and tea party cooperation on criminal matters.

Julianne Thompson, a member of Georgia Tea Party Patriots, said activists in her state have worked with liberal groups on ethics issues and would be open to doing the same on prison reform. Atlanta tea partyers also co-hosted a candidate forum last year with the local NAACP chapter.

“Even though we may disagree on many other issues, on issues were we can find consensus and not compromise our principles … we should try to work together,” Thompson said. “I do agree that we need to reduce prison populations among nonviolent offenders.”

Still, there is a broad gulf between the agendas of NAACP and Norquist’s Americans for Tax Reform on issues including health care, budget cuts and entitlement reform.

Americans for Tax Reform, a conservative group that has praised Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan’s (R) budget proposal as a “home run for taxpayers,” supported efforts to repeal the health care law and has criticized labor unions for intimidating workers.

At a recent Senate Tea Party Caucus meeting, Norquist discussed the difference between conservatives and liberals, saying: “There are two teams in this country. Those of us who ask one thing of government: that is to leave us alone. And those people who … view the proper role of government as taking things from some people, usually others, and giving them to others, usually them.”

That philosophical stance explains the limits to the partnership between Norquist and the NAACP. The NAACP says it believes the savings from prison reform should be pumped back into education, violence reduction programs and other social programs, while Norquist’s interest is strictly in cutting government spending.

“That is a point where we disagree,” Jealous said, but he prefers to focus on where his group can leverage common ground with Norquist, Gingrich and other conservatives.

“Just the fact that Grover Norquist and I can agree on what to do about the nation’s criminal system, how to make it better, how to make it more cost-effective, isn’t just a baby step, it is a very big step,” he said.