- - Sunday, January 17, 2016


The growing momentum of the criminal justice reform movement is moving state to state and now to Washington D.C.

The coalition in support of rethinking how many criminal laws we need in Washington and how much taxpayers wish to spend on prisons to house non-violent criminals for long mandatory minimum sentences includes taxpayer groups like Americans for Tax Reform as well as Christian and pro-family groups, the ACLU, and left-of-center groups.

But make no mistake, the driving force behind our successes have been conservative victories in reforming the justice system in red states with Republican governors and legislatures. This is, after all, a movement that began in Texas. And its successes in both reducing crime and saving tax dollars in Texas brought the issue to other red states like Georgia, Utah, and Louisiana, and now to the gates of Washington. Liberals are following along but they did not forge this path.

Some Republicans who have not focused on our successes in the states think we are still living back in the 1980s and also believe that “lock them up” is a smart political war cry. Modern conservatives know that those of us who care about national defense first fight against waste in the Pentagon budget and if we care about fighting crime we struggle against wasting a dollar that should go to punishing crime and protecting citizens. Wasting money is no way to demonstrate how much you care about an issue.

That is liberal think.

Some on the right have written that this is capitulation to the left. In reality, President Obama habitually punts on the issue while congressional Republicans take the lead. He is capitulating to us.

In fact, FBI director James Comey went on record stating that the “the reform as [he] understands it seems reasonable to [him].” He said this in reference to the Senate Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act.

No one is foolish enough to think that racial grievance was Gov. Rick Perry’s reasoning when he signed the first, second and third reform bills. Republican leaders on Capitol Hill support reducing or eliminating mandatory sentences for federal drug-trafficking crimes because Republicans in the states have already done so. And it has worked. Both to save money and to reduce crime.

Many criminals deserve long sentences and even inflated costs are worthwhile to keep the most violent criminals away from society. However, for some of the folks in prison the amount of time they are locked up has passed the point of diminishing returns.

Most research concludes that the harmful effects of warehousing low-level offenders makes them more likely to commit more crimes. Changing sentences is more about making sure low-level wrongdoers have appropriate sentences rather than unnecessary punishments.

But criminal justice reform goes much further.

Conservatives have been driving reform to areas that have limited individual liberty and damaged the rule of law for decades. Issues like civil asset forfeiture and criminal intent are ripe for Republican leadership — and that is what it will take to fix these problems.

Civil asset forfeiture — the legal scheme in which police can take and keep a person’s property — has been pilloried by conservative groups for years. Americans for Tax Reform repeatedly calls on legislators to put an end to the practice. To date, the most radical reformers have come from red states; New Mexico, North Carolina and Montana are all red states that have passed sweeping legislation to protect their citizens from possible abuse.

Likewise Sen. Rand Paul, Kentucky Republican, and Rep. Tim Walberg, Michigan Republican, have taken the lead on asset forfeiture in Congress. The Fifth Amendment Restoration Act would change the federal government’s forfeiture rules while the chairmen of both chambers prepare to introduce their own sweeping legislation.

The common thread? All of these efforts are led by Republicans.

The same is true on mens rea reform. One of the oldest legal principles in the common law system is under attack by overzealous regulators and careless legislatures.

Mens Rea stands for “Guilty Mind.” This term is typically invoked in criminal cases; prosecutors must prove that the accused meant to do the crime as well as the crime itself in order to convict. This protects an individual who either did not know an obscure law or broke a law without meaning to.

Just as there are more federal crimes than anyone can count, citizens should not face the possibility of going to prison or being labeled a criminal without the government establishing the intent to do wrong. This would help to avoid instances of innocent everyday Americans ending up unnecessarily costing taxpayers $30,000 a year.

This has already been addressed by Utah Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch’s Mens Rea Reform Act and Wisconsin Republican Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner’s Criminal Code Improvement Act.

It is silly to claim that all criminal justice reform hinges on anti-cop hysteria, or identity politics writ large. The reality is much different, much more optimistic and much more conservative. Republicans have been leaders in reform and will continue to be.

Grover Norquist is president of Americans for Tax Reform, and Jorge Marin is a federal affairs manager for the organization.

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