July 31, 2014 SIGN IN | REGISTER

Norquist Sees Savings in Prison Reform

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Anti-tax advocate Grover Norquist has been standing with the tea partyers in recent months, but he is now also linking arms with one of the movement’s most vocal opponents.

When the NAACP releases a new report Thursday calling for prison reform, Norquist plans to offer a public, albeit qualified, endorsement of the idea of saving taxpayer dollars by reducing incarceration rates and prison terms.

“We’re keeping certain people in prison for how long — at $20,000 a year, $50,000 a year in California,” Norquist, who is president of Americans for Tax Reform and a self-identifying tea partyer, told Roll Call. “Does that make sense? Do you really want taxpayers paying that much?”

Despite their disagreement over how to spend the savings — Norquist prefers a tax refund to the NAACP’s suggestion of investing in public education — and on most other policy issues of the day, both sides say bipartisanship is key to changing incarceration policies.

“Conservatives can have a conversation here that can actually move the ball,” Norquist said. “Only the Republicans can come forward and talk about saving resources at the same time that you fight crime because nobody believes the Democrats are actually going to punish crime.”

NAACP President Benjamin Jealous argued that conservatives have to take the lead because, “so many Democrats have become reflexively afraid of appearing soft on crime.”

He added that the NAACP’s new report — called “Misplaced Priorities: Under Educate, Over Incarcerate” — is a timely answer to the “fiscal urgency” facing lawmakers. It makes the case the sentence reductions, rehabilitation alternatives and educational opportunities will help reduce the nation’s high prison population. To emphasize the point, the NAACP has purchased billboards inside airports and along major roads in cities such as Los Angeles, Philadelphia and Richmond that say, “Welcome to America, home to 5 percent of the world’s people and 25 percent of the world’s prisoners.”

“If you look at the state level, you can see Democrat-led states, Republican-led states all making common sense, what we would call progressive — but in the most basic ways they’re also conservative and libertarian — reforms to adopt a smarter, safer and more cost-efficient approach to criminal justice reform,” Jealous said. “We think it’s important to actually make that bipartisan support visible nationally.”

Norquist’s support, along with that of former Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) and former American Conservative Union Chairman David Keene, could help bring other conservatives and even tea partyers on board.

“If Grover has signed on to it, along with an NAACP recommendation, that’s as close as you get to a bridge-building opportunity and a bipartisan start to a policy issue,” said Leslie Paige, spokeswoman for the advocacy group Citizens Against Government Waste.

Tea party groups also signaled an interest, despite past hostility with the NAACP. Last year, the civil rights group said tea parties “have given platform to anti-Semites, racists and bigots.”

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