Last month, the corporate-backed, conservative American Legislative Executive Council (ALEC) quietly rolled out new model legislation that would roll back some of the very harsh prison terms it once perpetuated in previous legislation to toughen sentences. At the time, ALEC did very little to publicize its about-face, in keeping with its typical efforts to keep a low profile. But on Friday, ALEC came forward with its support for shorter prison sentences for low-level offenders, likely hoping to change its image.
In an op-ed in the conservative Washington Times, ALEC’s Cara Sullivan issues a clear call for sentencing reform, joining the range of voices on the right calling publicly for a new approach to imprisonment. Referring to new ALEC “safety valve” model legislation that mirrors a federal proposal giving judges sentencing discretion, she writes:
Policymakers need to consider alternatives to the inefficient and often unjust status quo of sentencing nonviolent offenders to lengthy and expensive prison stays that do little to protect public safety. Although they differ in approach, these safety valves provide judges with discretion to depart from automatic, pre-established prison sentences for specific offenses — if the court finds the imposition of the mandatory-minimum sentence to be unnecessary or to be a miscarriage of justice. When applied to certain crimes, safety-valve legislation protects public safety by responsibly focusing resources on dangerous offenders who pose a real and clear threat to the community.
ALEC is joined by an ever-increasing diversity of supporters for reforming the prison policies that have earned the United States the title of world’s number one jailer. Other unlikely allies include a major association for correctional officers, and many federal prosecutors.
In fact, even as legislation is still pending in Congress to reform the law, some are already clammering to take credit for the new sentencing reform momentum. In a Reuters op-ed Thursday, Grover Norquist and his Americans for Tax Reform colleague Patrick Gleason write that Attorney General Eric Holder was a follower of GOP-led states, not a leader, when he announced a new directive to prosecutors not to seek mandatory minimum sentences for some drug offenses. Norquist is right that many states — both red and blue — have led the way on criminal justice reform, facing tight budgets and soaring prison costs. Attorney General Eric Holder acknowledged as much during his announcement when he said, “Clearly, these strategies can work. They’ve attracted overwhelming, bipartisan support in ‘red states’ as well as ‘blue states.’ And it’s past time for others to take notice.”
There are still many states that haven’t implemented any or enough reform, which is why ALEC is pushing its model legislation at the state level. But while ALEC, which lost many corporate supporters in the wake of news that it was behind Stand Your Ground laws, may have turned the corner on criminal justice, it remains quietly committed to many other destructive state policies, including opposing minimum wage increases, blocking paid sick leave, and opposing renewable energy.