In the early 1990s, then-Rep. Newt Gingrich unveiled one of the centerpieces of his new conservative agenda: putting more Americans behind bars. More prisons were urgently needed, he told the New York Times in 1992, “so that there are enough beds that every violent criminal in America is locked up, and they will serve real time and they will serve their full sentence and they do not get out on good behavior.” Finding the money for more cells was as easy as stripping “pork” from the budget. In the meantime, decommissioned military bases could house excess inmates. The Georgia Republican’s 1994 “Contract With America” included the Taking Back Our Streets Act, which would fund more state prisons, with extra money for states that curtailed parole.
Over the next two decades, the prison population more than doubled. One in 200 Americans is behind bars, the highest incarceration rate in the world. In 2009, the nation spent $82.7 billion on corrections, a 230 percent increase from 1990.
Today, Gingrich has changed his tune. “There is an urgent need to address the astronomical growth in the prison population, with its huge costs in dollars and lost human potential,” Gingrich wrote in a 2011 op-ed in the Washington Post. “We can no longer afford business as usual with prisons. The criminal justice system is broken, and conservatives must lead the way in fixing it.”
Gingrich is one of many high-profile conservatives to embrace criminal-justice reforms that would have been unthinkable in Republican circles just a few years ago. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie has vowed to end “the failed war on drugs that believes that incarceration is the cure of every ill caused by drug abuse.” Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) says the court system “disproportionately punishes the black community” and insists on repealing mandatory minimum sentences for drug crimes. Others who have spoken in favor of less draconian criminal policies include former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, former National Rifle Association President David Keene, former Attorney General Edwin Meese, former DEA head Asa Hutchinson, and Americans for Tax Reform founder Grover Norquist.
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