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Conservatives try to make criminal justice reform a signature issue

Tex. Gov. Rick Perry, left, makes a remark as Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform listens during a panel discussion on "Criminal Justice Reform" at the Conservative Political Action Conference. (Mike Theiler/Reuters)

Many of the headlines after day two of the Conservative Political Action Conference were about Rick Perry’s well-received speech, in which he harped on what he deemed the “two Americas”: red-state America and blue-state America.

But as much as the Texas governor’s morning address impressed the crowd, it was the second event in which he participated Friday that will be far more important if the Republican Party is serious about winning more swing voters in 2016.

Perry appeared alongside several other conservatives, including Grover Norquist, on a panel about criminal justice reform and how those reforms are being pushed by several Republican states.

While it was sandwiched between better-attended sessions, the discussion of Republican progress on reforming the criminal justice system was one of the few CPAC sessions that laid out a true pathway forward for a party that desperately wants to expand demographically.

Much of the Democrats’ successful messaging in recent years has painted Republicans as obstructionist. Democrats have ­noted the repeated attempts by congressional Republicans to repeal the Affordable Care Act, and each week House Democrats rail against the Republican leadership’s refusal to allow votes on immigration reform and raising the minimum wage.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry gave an enthusiastic opening speech on the second day of the Conservative Political Action Conference (The Associated Press)

And much of the CPAC lineup consisted of panels that will likely be fodder for that type of Democratic messaging (for example, “Obama’s IRS: Political Arm of the Left?”).

But on issues of sentencing reform and prison recidivism, Republicans — especially several governors in Southern states — have been the leaders, earning praise from prison reform groups on both sides of the aisle for efforts to save money by implementing rehabilitation programs and curbing skyrocketing prison costs.

A nonpartisan study issued last year about how one of the bluest states in the union, Massachusetts, could cut prison costs credited Republicans states for how they have tackled prison reform.

That’s why the criminal justice discussion at CPAC surpasses the practice-run stump speeches of 2016 hopefuls in importance if the GOP’s stated desire to re-brand is for real. “This is our chance to show we can provide solutions to affect significant problems,” said Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform.

The renewed focus on cost-
s­aving reforms marks a dramatic, decade-long shift by Republican governors, many of whom previously won election by stumping on tough-on-crime platforms.

But, as many of those governors have noted, one way to cut state costs is to decrease the number of people being locked up for nonviolent offenses and rid the law books of mandatory minimum sentences for such offenses.

In addition to Perry, prominent Republicans who once trumpeted tough-on-crime ­stances and now call for sentencing changes and rehabilitation programs for drug and other nonviolent offenders include former Florida governor Jeb Bush and former House speaker Newt Gingrich. Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), a tea party hero, has made reform of mandatory minimum sentences a major focus in recent months.

“We’re not a soft-on-crime state, you know what I’m saying? . . . We’re tough on crime,” Perry said. “But I hope we are also seen as a smart-on-crime state.”

While the room emptied out a little right before the panel — which followed a speech by former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee — many CPAC attendees did stick around, which should be encouraging for center-right Republicans who have called for a more solutions-oriented message from the party. On Thursday, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie declared that “our ideas are better than their ideas.”

The push for more solutions-oriented messaging was not universal at CPAC, however.

Paul on Friday urged Republicans not to “meekly dilute our message” by settling for insufficiently conservative candidates in the midterm or presidential campaigns. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) and former senator Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) attacked previous GOP presidential candidates for not being conservative enough. Cruz called them out by name, sarcastically urging the crowd to “remember President Dole, President McCain and President Romney.”

Still, Perry was the star of the day Friday with a rousing, upbeat speech focused on two different futures for the country, one based on a red-state, Texas-like strategy, one based on a blue-state strategy like New York’s. Perry argued that Texas is a perfect model of less government.

“We have created almost 30 percent of the nation’s jobs while keeping taxes among the nation’s lowest,” he said. “We have presided over not only an energy boom but the nation’s largest population boom and an economic boom of monumental proportion.”

Perry added, “The future of America is based on the state ­vision that wins out. We don’t need to change history. We just need to change the presidency.”

He said there were things the government should not be involved in: “Get out of the education system, get out of health care!” Among the things it should do: “Deliver the mail, do it on time and, heck, do it on Saturdays.”

The crowd rose as Perry’s speech came to a close and applauded as he yelled his final lines.

“You represent the renewed hope that America can be renewed again,” Perry said.

Wesley Lowery is a national reporter covering law enforcement and justice for the Washington Post. He previously covered Congress and national politics.

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