JACKSON – It sounded like a Conservatives Anonymous meeting one morning last week at the Mississippi Capitol.
“I’m Andy Gipson, and I’m tough on crime,” was how the chairman of the House Judiciary B Committee introduced himself — perhaps to provide a bit of political cover for other Republican lawmakers ahead of a vote on a prison reform legislation meant to reduce the number of people in Mississippi state prisons.
For decades, Republicans have been advocating an anti-crime policy that includes heavy doses of locking people away. And that’s typically been combined with accusations that Democrats are soft on crime.
That’s not to say Democrats couldn’t get tough, too, especially in Mississippi. Democrats were still comfortably in the majority in the Legislature in 1995 when one of them, Sen. Rob Smith, got a law passed requiring criminals to serve 85 percent of their sentences.
That measure was a big contributor to an explosion in Mississippi’s prison population. Though the state started easing away from the 85 percent law several years ago, the prison population has remained large and that has eaten into the state budget for years.
Republican Gov. Haley Barbour already tried to reverse the trend by letting more people out of prison from 2004 to 2012. But hundreds more people are still being added to state custody each year.
Now, with another effort underway, Republicans brought in an unlikely evangelist for prison reform: American Legislative Exchange Council.
There are few organizations more likely to raise a Democrat’s dander than ALEC, which has faced numerous allegations that it’s a conduit for big business to pass out model bills that Republicans state lawmakers then enact for corporate benefit. ALEC says the attacks are unfair — that it’s a place for lawmakers and businesses to work together and that lawmakers modify bills to fit local conditions. But it’s safe to say that liberals find the group odious and that ALEC doesn’t love them back.
But last year, ALEC enlisted in “Right on Crime,” a push by a conservative Texas think tank that argues states are spending too much money locking up nonviolent offenders in exchange for not very good results.
“Prison serves a necessary role, but it’s not the right answer for every offender,” said Cara Sullivan, director of ALEC’s judicial performance project.
Sullivan argued before a small group of Mississippi lawmakers that what they’re doing is holding prisons accountable for the dollars they spend.
“Just because public safety is important doesn’t mean we can give it a hall pass on spending,” she said. “We need conservatives to lead the charge on this. These are conservative reforms.”
To bolster her case, she brought along former Texas Rep. Jerry Madden, who helped pass a prison reform that cut the number of inmates in that state. Madden is now a senior fellow with Right on Crime, traveling the country to argue that lawmakers make smart changes to cut the prison population while enhancing public safety.
Madden then joined the competition to link the term “conservative” with shrinking the number of prisoners.
“It was a conservative plan,” Madden said. “It was saving us money; it was making us safer; it was treating people who had drug problems, who had alcohol problems, who had mental health problems.”
Sometimes Texas seems like the conservative gold standard among Mississippi Republicans, where cowboy-boot wearing Gov. Phil Bryant seems to consciously invoke echoes of longtime Texas Gov. Rick Perry. So, maybe it worked.
“It is conservative,” former prosecutor and state Sen. Brice Wiggins, R-Pascagoula, said afterward.