The GOP field has not said much on the topic, although had Texas Governor Rick Perry been a candidate for the long haul, he would have likely spoken about it more. Just because those conservative candidates looking for high poll numbers are not saying much, however, does not mean that the issue is dead in conservative policy circles.
Newt Gingrich, along with former California Assemblyman Pat Nolan (he spent 25 months in a federal prison for taking illegal contributions), have talked about the issue at length.
Gingrich explains that states have realized long sentences for non-violent offenders (often drug offenders) are just too costly. He says that taxpayers will cough up just under $7 billion for federal prisons this year alone.
It's good to see the right talking about what the progressive left has been pondering for a much longer period of time. States like Texas and South Carolina - states not known for their sympathy to drug offenders - have started approaching prison reform by offering more treatment to non-violent offenders. South Carolina has saved more than $10 million since revamping its strategy on incarceration in 2010.
Of the candidates vying for president, only Democrat James Webb has taken prison reform seriously. It is time the rest of the bunch gets on board. There are not many votes to get in prison reform, but that is one way we measure character in elections: by seeing what issues a candidate is willing to dive into, despite the payoff. It is what we call leadership.
This is not to say that the ideas that Gingrich and Nolan share are the way to go. Some prison reform advocates lean more toward faith-based reforms, much in the same thinking that former Nixon aide Chuck Colson did after serving time.
Not every solution works when it comes to public policy, but when it comes to prison reform, there is not much to lose. What is at stake is whether the federal government wants to reform its prison system the way some states have. Do they want to stress stiffer penalties to violent offenders, while using alternatives for non-violent offenders?
The result might mean freeing up space in prison for hardened and lifelong criminals. It could result in closing some prisons, or at least stemming the growth of them, which ultimately saves money.
There are creative ways that the federal government can change its prison system. We are living in a time when people are sometimes caught sympathizing with terrorist groups. Those are the people that need to be locked up for the rest of their lives. A young man who sells marijuana does not need to be locked in a cell, costing us money, not to mention the energy we spend on appeals.
This is a bipartisan issue. The recently introduced SAFE (Safe, Accountable, Fair, Effective Justice Reinvestment) Act was introduced by congressmen James Sensenbrenner (R-WI) and Bobby Scott (D-VA). The bill aims to reduce recidivism, meaning they are trying to end the revolving-door syndrome of our justice system. In July, House Speaker John Boehner threw his support behind it. There are too many Americans behind bars to ignore the importance of prison reform.