Liberal Hero of the Week #35: Rick Perry, Republican Governor of Texas

by Stephen Tall on April 19, 2013

Liberal Hero of the Week is chosen by Stephen Tall, Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, and Research Associate at CentreForum. The series showcases those who promote any of the four liberal tenets identified in The Orange Book — economic, personal, political and social liberalism — regardless of party affiliation and from beyond Westminster. If they stick up for liberalism in some way then they’re in contention.

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Rick Perry

Republican Governor of Texas
Reason: for promoting a liberal approach to crime reduction

“I believe we can take an approach to crime that is both tough and smart… [T]here are thousands of non-violent offenders in the system whose future we cannot ignore. Let’s focus more resources on rehabilitating those offenders so we can ultimately spend less money locking them up again.”

What kinda liberal commie-loving talk is this? Actually it’s Rick Perry — yes, that Rick Perry: the tea-partying Republican Governor of Texas — quoted on the US website, Right on Crime. The site details the policies pursued in 27 US states which aim to use smart, effective public policy to combat crime.

To be honest, it’s a disconcerting read for a UK citizen: because the policies advocated, while cloaked in the robust language of the American right, are frequently liberal in intent. Here, for instance, are Right on Crime’s crime-reducing principles: “protecting the public, lowering crime rates, reducing re-offending, collecting victim restitution and conserving taxpayers’ money”.

Talk’s easy, you might say. Fair enough, but US Republicans are not afraid to walk the talk on this issue. Texas has, in its own words, “strengthened alternatives to incarceration”:

In 2003, the state legislature required that all drug possession offenders with less than a gram of drugs be sentenced to probation instead of state jail time. In 2005, probation departments began receiving additional funds with the goal of implementing evidence-based supervision practices and treatment programs to reduce unnecessary revocations to prison both by preventing new offenses and reducing technical revocations.

This liberal policy has continued, as Rick Muir of the left-leaning IPPR think-tank noted in the New Statesman yesterday:

The Republican Governor of Texas has scrapped plans to build three new prisons, saving $2bn. This money has instead been reinvested in treating offenders with mental health and addiction problems. The state has reduced its prison population by 6,000, while keeping crime at historic lows.

Credit is (over-)due to the US right on this issue. It may have been their libertarian recoil from the spiralling costs of ever-rising prison numbers which sparked their interest, but the result has been to re-focus attention on the ultimate purpose of prison: the rehabilitation of the offender to become a contributing member of society. They have eschewed the intellectually vacuous ‘prison works’ mantra that too many Conservatives (often mimicked by Labour) have adopted in the last 20 years in favour of policies that are shown to be effective.

There is hope, though, that some British politicians are beginning to wake up to the reality that simply locking up every miscreant to strike a ‘tough on crime’ pose is self-defeating. For instance, Conservative MP Ben Gummer wrote recently in the Telegraph:

We are spending more on crime and justice than ever before, as more and more people have been sent to prison. There are twice as many men and women incarcerated in England and Wales as there were in the mid-1990s. Elsewhere in Europe, the prison population has followed crime rates down. Yet back here in Blighty we are ramming our prisons full, spending a fortune in the process and doing very little to turn criminals’ lives around. The result is that reoffending is roughly where it was five, ten, fifteen and twenty years ago. We are at the top of the European league tables for reoffending rates; for some groups, reoffending has actually increased. In sum, we are spending far more to achieve less and less. That is lunacy.

He went on to praise Intelligent Justice (Feb 2013), the Howard League for Penal Reform’s publication which debunks ‘prison works’:

  1. demolishing the idea it deters (“The key factor which prevents most people from offending is how likely they are to be punished, rather than how severe the punishment is.”),
  2. arguing it simply displaces the problem (“evidence suggests that, in some cases, imprisoning one person creates a ‘job vacancy’ for another to take their place and commit offences.”) and
  3. exploding the claim it actually reduces crime (“imprisoning a large number of people for longer periods of time results in short-run declines in crime but long-run increases in crime when they are eventually released”).

It concludes by pointing out that “it is usually more effective – and cheaper – to get people to ‘buy into’ behaviour rather than compel or cajole or supervise them into it … punishment needs to have broader ambitions than simply to contain risk by warehousing those whose offending is serious and persistent”. Practical proposals include those who have successfully completed intervention programmes (such as drug treatment) returning to the court where they were sentenced so the magistrates can “formally recognise the changes made and congratulate them”.

One final point: crime reduction isn’t the only policy area where the US right is currently showing itself to be more progressive than most British politicians have the courage to be.

The Lib Dem proposal of ‘an earned route to citizenship’ for those illegal immigrants who’ve been settled in the country for many years was decried by Conservative and Labour politicians at the last election (to the point where Nick Clegg now wants to ditch it as a vote-losing liability).

In the US, it’s becoming political orthodoxy on both right and left, with former Republican presidential contender John McCain asking the bluntly effective question: “Why should millions of illegal immigrants have to continue to live and work in the shadows?” Quite so. It’s enough to invite another blunt question: why are US Republicans proving themselves, at least in these two areas, to be more liberal than liberal leaders in this country?

* You can view our list of ‘Liberal Heroes of the Week’ (and occasional ‘Liberal Villains’) here. Nominations are welcome via email or Twitter.