Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) is hardly the first or only conservative to look at reforming our drug laws. But he might be the most important. This Wednesday, as part of his GOP outreach, he’s going to Howard University and may well address the topic there. It may surprise the students, but Republicans have been kicking around the idea for quite some time.

Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) (James Crisp/Associated Press) Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) (James Crisp/Associated Press)

National Review came out in favor of drug legalization more than a decade ago. More common, however, have been efforts to modify sentencing and treatment of those guilty of nonviolent drug offenses.

It was a topic the late conservative social scientist great James Q. Wilson wrote about frequently. In 2000, he argued:

Our experience with drug courts suggests that the procedural problems can be overcome. In such courts, several hundred of which now exist, special judges oversee drug-dependent offenders, insisting that they work to overcome their habits. While under drug-court supervision, offenders reduce drug consumption and, at least for a while after leaving the court, offenders are less likely to be arrested.

Our goal ought to be to extend meaningful community supervision to all probationers and parolees, especially those who have a serious drug or alcohol problem.

In both New Jersey and Texas (hardly a left-wing, soft-on-crime bastion), alternatives to incarceration for nonviolent drug offenders have met with success. Looking at some drug-court experiments in various locales, the National Institute of Justice found, “Using retrospective data, researchers in several studies found that drug courts reduced recidivism among program participants in contrast to comparable probationers.” Moreover, it’s cheaper — by a lot — to treat rather than incarcerate addicts. (“Compared to traditional criminal justice system processing, treatment and other investment costs averaged $1,392 lower per drug court participant. Reduced recidivism and other long-term program outcomes resulted in public savings of $6,744 on average per participant (or $12,218 if victimization costs are included).)”

Paul has set his sights on mandatory minimum sentences, which sometimes result in ludicrously long sentences for nonviolent drug use. Some reformers suggest abolishing mandatory minimums for certain classes of crimes while others recommend simply shortening those minimums. (“[T]he minimum sentences in question, particularly for nonviolent offenders like embezzlers and drug couriers, would be much shorter. . . .These short, sometimes shocking prison sentences would serve both to punish offenders and deter future crime. But they would do so without destroying lives or warehousing human capital, as the current regime of mandatory minimum prison sentences is doing.”)

Conservative skeptics might ask, why bother with this effort? Aside from the cynicism involved (where’s the political payoff?), in such expressions of disinterest, there is, I would suggest, a failure to appreciate how shaky is the public’s belief in government’s ability to get anything right.. On an issue with potential for bipartisan support and documented success, conservatives shouldn’t be shy about embracing reform, and thereby demonstrating their commitment to better governance.

Certainly drug reform offers some cost savings, and the issue may resonate with young people and minorities (who are disproportionately affected by long mandatory minimum sentences). But now and again it pays to embrace smart policy that is both compassionate and efficient. Shocking as it may seem, pols of both parties are supposed to be making life better for Americans. This, it strikes me, is fertile ground.

I’ll be curious to hear Paul’s speech at Howard University. On this topic, immigration reform and gay marriage (“I think, right now, if we say, ‘Oh, we’re only going to have, we believe in a federally mandated one-man-one-woman marriage,’ we’re going to lose that battle, because the country’s going the other way right now”) Paul seems to be on the cutting edge of policy innovation on the right. Does he simply have a smart nose for where the action is or is he leading the charge? Perhaps it is some of both. But it does suggest, if he and others are successful, that the major policy revisions and accomplishments on the right may not come from budget cutting or tax reform but from issues on which there is already some bipartisan support and center-right-libertarian support can tip the balance in favor of innovation.