Dispatches from the Creation Wars

Conservative anti-tax legend Grover Norquist is swimming against the tide of conservative opinion in advocating for the kind of dramatic overhaul of America’s criminal justice system that I’ve thought necessary for a long time.

Conservative icon Grover Norquist is in Tallahassee pitching the national “Smart on Crime” agenda, a prison reform movement that’s got the support of other “center right” politicos including Newt Gingrich and William Bennett.

Hosted by business-backed Florida TaxWatch, Norquist spoke for more than half an hour at the tony Governor’s Club to a crowd of lobbyists, criminal justice providers and policy makers.

TaxWatch is pushing the reform agenda aimed at cutting back on prison spending.

And boy, do we need that! The cost of locking people up is one of the primary causes (as opposed to public unions, the favored fake cause of most conservatives) of the budget crisis going on in most states. But the Smart on Crime agenda goes way beyond just reducing costs; it is a wholesale restructuring of the criminal justice system to make it more equitable and just for all involved.

It includes the kind of forensic science reforms that Balko has been advocating for years. It includes grand jury reform and mandatory sentence reform, asset forfeiture reform and much more. And it isn’t all about saving money; it calls for more spending on critical issues like DNA testing (advocating total availability and testing of DNA, something opposed by both the Bush and Obama administrations), including compensation for those wrongly convicted.

It also advocates spending a lot more money on indigent defense with the goal of “creating parity between defense and prosecution resources.” That section also calls for objective standards for the quality of public defenders and for limits on how many cases they can handle, which will require a serious increase in spending to fix.

The agenda also calls for serious reform of the death penalty, falling just short of calling for outlawing it completely. It calls for a stay on all executions “pending a thorough data collection and analysis of racial disparities, the adequacy of legal representation, and other inequities in the death penalty system” and for the passage of a law allowing habeas corpus challenges in federal court for all state defendants in death penalty cases.

This is a very important set of reforms, similar to those being advocated by Sen. James Webb (and being ignored by the leadership of both parties), and the fact that a prominent conservative is pushing for them could end up being key to getting a fair hearing for those reforms.

It also should remind us of two tendencies that can often lead to error. Too often we apply a political label to someone — conservative, liberal, libertarian, etc. — and presume that they must therefore believe every other thing we put under that label. And too often we presume that if we think someone is wrong about one issue, they must be wrong about every issue. It’s all part of that sports fan politics that I mention frequently.

But sometimes — many times — people surprise us and hold opinions on some issues that defy our labels and our presumptions. And we should be open to that. And we should recognize that being right or wrong on one issue doesn’t necessarily mean that one is right or wrong on every issue.

I very much like being surprised by that, as I was when I found out Norquist is an advocate of the kind of reforms in criminal justice usually advocated by liberals and libertarians, because it shows that they’re not thinking in purely tribal terms, that there is some independence to them. And that is always a good thing.