Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich said Wednesday that conservative lawmakers are at the forefront of criminal justice reform across the country, touting both piecemeal and comprehensive efforts already in place in a handful of red states.
“Frankly we're prepared to learn and to evolve much more than the left is,” Gingrich said during a conference hosted by Right on Crime, a conservative criminal justice reform organization. “We're not trapped by institutions that are protecting the past.”
The conference gave conservative lawmakers and thought leaders a chance to tout their efforts on an issue whose politics used to demand tough-on-crime rhetoric and action in the days of the 1980s urban crack epidemic. Falling crime rates and concerns about the cost of prison overcrowding has changed the calculus for both parties.
In Mississippi, for example, a prison reform law that is expected to save about $266 million and cut the state prison population over the next decade was signed into law in late March. In 2012, Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal signed a sweeping reform law in an effort to reduce the state’s recidivism level. Two years later, the state saw its prison population shift to have higher proportions of violent criminals than non-violent.
While states have been moving forward on reform, the federal government has only recently gained momentum. The Senate’s bipartisan Smarter Sentencing Act, which takes direct aim at mandatory minimum sentences, is considered good policy by lawmakers on both sides of the aisle but has yet to reach the Senate floor. Gingrich said that bill is only a step in the right direction.
“The federal legislatures would do very well to sit down with Mississippi, Georgia, Texas and learn what the states are already doing that is very exciting,” he said.
Even as the politics have changed, some lawmakers still fear being see as soft on crime. When the Smarter Sentencing Act—which would reduce federal mandatory minimums for some non-violent drug crimes—passed through committee, an amendment was attached adding more mandatory minimums for some sexual and domestic abuse crimes.
“I think we have an opportunity here to build on the successes in states like Texas, in states like South Dakota, and Mississippi, most recently, because we have a roadmap,” Mississippi Lt. Gov. J. Tate Reeves told TIME. “When the country was founded it was really believed that states where going to be the spaces where ideas really bubble up from, this is an instance that I believe that to be true.”