"I've been saying for years that I'm waiting for conservatives to realize this," says Mark Kleiman, professor at University of California Los Angeles. While calling budget reduction "the least good reason" to consider reform, Kleiman says that "in this case, the goal of saving money, and the goal of not keeping people in cages, gets you to the same place."
That's the hope that led Kleiman to a small gathering about a year ago, called by Gingrich — which brought together a dozen or so mostly left-leaning reform advocates, with a similar number of conservative leaders, including then-chairman of the Republican National Committee, Michael Steele.
That was the start of what turned into Right on Crime. Gingrich's effort drew behind-the-scenes attention — and funding — from nonpartisan organizations like Pew Center on the States, and the Council on State Governments. And, thanks to the interest of Texas Governor Rick Perry, it eventually found a home with the Texas Public Policy Foundation, which is part of the influential conservative State Policy Network.
Some advocates say that Right on Crime will get in the door with Republican lawmakers, who have a knee-jerk unwillingness to listen to their own organizations, which are perceived as part of the lefty opposition.
And we're already seeing some GOP governors willing to take the lead, in a "Nixon-going-to-China" way, where Democrats fear to tread.
Perry, for instance, pushed through significant sentencing reforms in Texas after a study showed that, at the current rate of incarceration, the state would need to spend billions it doesn't have on new prisons. And Mitch Daniels, governor of Indiana, is currently advocating large-scale reforms for the same reason.
It is not lost on some liberal activists that Perry and Daniels are also potential candidates for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination, as is Gingrich. The days of national Republicans pounding on Democrats with Willie Horton–style ads may give way, in this cycle, to serious approaches that would actually serve to reduce crime.
But these same liberals are well aware that when push comes to shove, politics often trumps ideas. Gingrich was taking up the cause of combating global warming as recently as two years ago; he changed his tune as he became more serious about a possible presidential run.
It's uncertain how influential these outside conservatives will prove to be.
The first test may come with the National Criminal Justice Commission Act, which Senator Jim Webb of Virginia is expected to reintroduce this year. That bill, which would create a study of effective criminal-justice practices, was considered a major step toward wide-ranging reform. But, despite passing the Democratic-controlled House, and being voted favorably out of Webb's Judiciary Committee, the effort died in 2010 — because tough-on-crime conservatives like Tom Coburn of Oklahoma blocked it.
With Republicans now heading the House, the bill's chances of success would seem to have dropped. Some on the left are hoping that Right on Crime can improve those odds.
But it's hardly clear that the right's vision of criminal-justice reform will end up looking like what the left has envisioned. And Right on Crime, while outlining some fine-sounding principles, has not yet attached itself to any specific policies.