- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Leaders of the nation’s best-known civil rights organization are teaming up with some of conservatism’s top names to call for radical change in the costly way many states deal with convicted felons.

Society would be better served over the long haul if nonviolent criminals were required to work and pay restitution instead of being incarcerated in high-cost prisons, the coalition of NAACP and conservative leaders contend.

“We’re locking up the folks we’re mad at but not afraid of,” former California Republican Assembly Leader Pat Nolan told The Washington Times. “We should lock up only people we’re afraid of. It’s a waste of taxpayers’ money otherwise.”

Mr. Nolan, a director with the Christian policy group Justice Fellowship, along with Rod Page, who served as education secretary under President George W. Bush, and Americans for Tax Reform President Grover G. Norquist are scheduled to join NAACP President Benjamin Todd Jealous and business and education leaders at Washington’s National Press Club on Thursday.

“We need to be ‘smart on crime’ rather than ‘tough on crime’ and address soaring incarceration rates in this country,” Mr. Jealous said in a statement Wednesday. “Failing schools, college tuition hikes and shrinking state education budgets are narrowing the promise of education for young people all across the country.”

“Meanwhile,” Mr. Jealous added, “allocations for our incarceration system continue to increase, sending our youth the wrong message about their future.”

The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People is expected to call for using the public funds saved by reducing the costs of incarceration to alleviate looming cuts to education and rehabilitation programs in states hit hard by the recession.

But the conservatives generally favor letting the states and their voters decide how to use the potential savings.

“Conservatives are beginning to look at the rising costs of incarceration and the exploding number of federal crimes,” Mr. Norquist told The Times. “Reform of the criminal justice system and our prisons can only come from the [political] right, as the liberals have little or no credibility with the general public on fighting crime.

“We can fight crime more effectively and at lower cost than we do now,” Mr. Norquist said. “Just as conservatives call for saving money at the Pentagon, we can call for spending competently in the criminal justice and prison system.”

All sides represented in the joint briefing are believed to favor putting nonviolent felons, such as drug offenders, on supervised probation while continuing to lock up violent offenders.

Their disagreements, however, will likely center on whether the potential prison-reform dividend should be targeted to education.

Conservatives are not convinced that more spending will improve the quality of education in the country, but Mr. Jealous thinks otherwise.

“As prisons eat up state funds,” he said, “students will be expected to shoulder the burden of higher college tuition - taking away one of the best sources of hope for individuals from struggling communities.”

Mr. Norquist said that, nonetheless, all sides “can work together to spend less on prisons. What each state does with those savings is a matter for future debate.”

In a poll released by RightonCrime.com on Wednesday, 67 percent of Texas voters said they favor applying the same scrutiny to prison-system costs as to other government programs, and 80 percent favored requiring nonviolent, first-time offenders to work and pay restitution while on mandatory probation supervision.

Mr. Norquist, a conservative who, like Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, thinks the Pentagon should not be immune from cost cutting, said, “When we work to cut out a wasteful defense program, we always have a coalition of folks looking out for taxpayers and those who want the money for another plane or ship.”

Former American Conservative Union Chairman David A. Keene, also listed as a participant In the NAACP press release, told The Times late Wednesday that he does not intend to join the briefing. He said his affiliations were “misrepresented” in the NAACP statement.

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