'Cuddling Up to Criminals': Criminal-Justice Reform at CPAC

Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call/AP Images

Attendees wait in line to vote in the presidential straw poll at the American Conservative Union's CPAC conference at National Harbor in Oxon Hill, Maryland, on Thursday, March 3, 2016. 

On Thursday, conservatives of all stripes descended on the Gaylord National Convention Center at the National Harbor in Maryland, just a few miles south of Washington, D.C. In recent years, the annual Conservative Political Action Conference has featured presentations on topics ranging from the future of the Republican Party to voter engagement to criminal-justice reform, which lately has gained support from the right side of the aisle.

This year’s panel on criminal-justice reform featured a debate pitting reformers Pat Nolan of the American Conservative Union and Ken Cuccinelli, the former attorney general of Virginia, against lock-'em-up apostle David Clarke, the sheriff of Milwaukee County, Wisconsin, who’d famously compared Black Lives Matter protesters to ISIS terrorists.

“Folks,” Clarke began, “you’re not being told the truth when it comes to this criminal-justice reform and sentencing reform.” Clarke went on to tout the policies from the tough-on-crime era. “This led to record low numbers of crime, violent crimes, in your communities,” he said.

For conservatives who favor reducing the prison population, a popular talking point has to do with costs. The United States spends approximately $80 billion each year keeping people behind bars. For those fond of fiscal conservatism, that’s just more government spending that can be cut.

But Clarke dismissed the idea in his opening remarks. “All this is going to do, at best, is shift the cost from the federal government down to the state level,” he said. Citing high recidivism rates, he argued that re-offenders would be put into state prisons, forcing states to incur the costs. Of course, the overwhelming majority of prisoners are in state, not federal, prisons to begin with, so cost-shifting from the federal to the state level isn’t really an issue in the criminal-justice reform discussion—not that Clarke seemed to understand that.

Cuccinelli, who is a part of of the Right on Crime initiative—a campaign for conservative solutions to criminal justice—sang a different tune. “Over the last ten years, [Texas] has reduced both their budget for prisons and their crime rate by double digit percentages,” he said.

“It’s not the Californias and the New Yorks of the world, it’s the Texases, the Georgias, the Dakotas,” that are reforming their criminal-justice systems, he said—even though Texas and Georgia are in the top ten states with the highest incarcerations rates.

Nolan delivered a semi-impassioned defense of why the government should only prosecute certain crimes like rape, murder, and robbery and should target major drug traffickers as opposed to street dealers. Clarke interrupted him to demonstrate why nonviolent drug offenders deserve to be in prison for as long as possible.

“If you’re a struggling mom living in a slum or a ghetto in a city in the United States of America,” Clarke said, “and you’re doing everything that you can to keep your kid away from that dope dealer standing on the corner who’s out there every day … do you know that to get that guy off the street for as long as we can be allowed by law is a big deal for her?”

Though Nolan and Cuccinelli continued to make the case for shorter sentences for certain crimes as well as ways to reduce prison spending—a case that other Republican legislators are making as well—Clarke made clear that there was plenty of pushback from other conservatives. He name-checked four Republican senators who agree with him on the need to stick with the status quo. “Tom Cotton is right on this. Jeff Sessions is right on this. Orrin Hatch is right on this. Ted Cruz is right on opposing this Trojan horse.”

“I find it unfathomable that we would cede this [issue] back over to the left and to the Democrats,” said Clarke, “by cuddling up to criminals.”

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