Conservative Skepticism About 'Tough On Crime' Policies Gets Its Turn At CPAC

03/07/2014 02:02 pm ET | Updated Mar 07, 2014

NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. -- In a back corner of the exhibition hall for the Conservative Political Action Conference -- past the National Rifle Association's multiple booths and across the way from the Charles Koch Institute's table -- there's a group making its first appearance at CPAC. Its table is littered with handouts featuring libertarian Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and a bowl full of yellow squirt guns, and its television flashes quotes from preacher Pat Robertson and former President George H.W. Bush.

But its call for criminal justice reform was not traditionally welcome in the conservative movement. The nonpartisan Families Against Mandatory Minimums fights against laws that force judges to send convicted criminals away for a set number of years, regardless of individual circumstances.

FAMM's message at CPAC was well targeted to the audience. The group's pamphlets highlighted the family of Orville Lee Wollard, a former Sea World employee in Florida who was sentenced to 20 years behind bars in 2009 for firing a warning shot inside his home to scare off his daughter's violent boyfriend.

"We're getting a really good reaction, especially when we talk about mandatory minimums for gun crimes," Molly Gill, FAMM's government affairs counsel and a former prosecutor, told The Huffington Post. "People identify with that, and it resonates very strongly with them because they're gun owners, and because I think a lot of them do fear that if they defended themselves or their family, there would be really harsh consequences for that."

Joining FAMM in the convention hall were two groups that have been pushing criminal justice reform from within the conservative movement: Right on Crime, which grew out of the Texas Public Policy Foundation, and Justice Fellowship, a division of Prison Fellowship Ministries, which was started by President Richard Nixon's "hatchet man" Chuck Colson after his seven-month stint in federal prison for obstructing justice during the Watergate scandal.

The topic of criminal justice reform received some time on CPAC's main stage on Friday morning. A panel discussion featured Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R), who talked about reforms in his state; anti-tax activist Grover Norquist, who sees mandatory minimum sentencing as a big waste of taxpayer dollars; and former New York City Police Commissioner Bernard Kerik, who joined the push for prison reform after he got out of federal prison last spring.

"If there's ever a time that this can get fixed, this is the time," Kerik told the CPAC audience.

"There aren't many things that the president and the attorney general and I agree about. Know what I mean?" Perry said, referencing Attorney General Eric Holder's criminal justice reform push. "They both recognize what we've done in Texas. The idea that we lock people up, throw them away, never give them a chance at redemption is not what America's about."

"We're seeing the most bipartisan support for sentencing reform that we've seen in years," Gill told HuffPost. She said that politicians aren't quite as worried about accusations of being "soft on crime" as they were back in the 1990s.

"There are some people that still feel very strongly that 'tough on crime' means long sentences, locking everybody up and not giving any people chances to rehabilitate themselves or return to society," Gill said. But she added, "I do see that to be generational."

"The public is getting smarter," said Derek Cohen, who was working the Right on Crime booth. "If crime is going down, then why are incarceration rates going up?"

The conservative movement's increasing doubts about the drug war was also reflected at a Thursday afternoon panel on the decriminalization of marijuana. Mary Katharine Ham, a conservative blogger who had battled TV host Bill O'Reilly over the legalization of marijuana earlier this year, faced off against Chris Beach, a producer for conservative radio host (and former Reagan drug czar) Bill Bennett. Beach, who was brought in at the last minute to defend marijuana criminalization, faced a lot of skepticism from the audience and received the overwhelming majority of the questions.

Cohen said that pointing out the waste inherent in a massive prison system is a really effective way to reach fiscal conservatives.

"Texas has kind of a reputation," he said. "We kind of joke around and say, you know, it took Nixon to go to China, it took Texas to finally say we are spending way too much on criminal justice, we need to be smarter about it."

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