Liberal Academic, Tea Party Leader Rethinking Crime Policy

An academic rebel and a Tea Party leader found common ground on prison reform. Carlos Javier Ortiz / Redux

Tea party leaders tend not to break bread with black liberals, media centrists, and conservative plutocrats for a reason: they rarely agree on much. But by the time Mark Meckler arrived in Austin, Texas, on Feb. 9, he was fed up with being a Tea Party bigwig. He was ready for something different.

Like a dinner at Vespaio Ristorante with civil-rights activist Benjamin Chavis, MSNBC host Dylan Ratigan, and Texas oilman Tim Dunn.

The topic of conversation wasn't Obamacare or the national debt or any of the other things that Meckler—who was about to quit the Tea Party Patriots, a group he'd cofounded in 2009—had already spent plenty of time obsessing over. Instead, it was a subject that Tea Partiers usually ignore: criminal-justice reform.

Of all the problems in America today, none is both as obvious and as overlooked as the colossal human catastrophe that is our criminal-justice system. Prisons are overflowing. The government is broke. Communities are being destroyed. And yet the country's cowed, uncreative politicians are still stuck in lock-'em-up mode: a stale ideology that demands stricter drug laws, tougher policing, and more incarceration, then tars every dissenter as "soft on crime." As a result, the U.S. is now paying $200 billion a year, according to the late Harvard criminal-justice scholar William Stuntz, to arrest, try, and incarcerate nearly 25 percent of the world's prisoners, even though it's home to only 5 percent of the world's inhabitants. Crack use may have subsided, violent crime may have plummeted, and so-called superpredators may have gone the way of Bigfoot. But that hasn't stopped us from separating millions of disproportionately poor, disproportionately black men from their families and communities and consigning them to a vicious cycle of stigmatization and recidivism instead.

Meckler, Chavis, Ratigan, and Dunn had come to Austin in search of a better way. Their guide was David Kennedy, a criminologist at John Jay College in New York. Over margherita pies, Kennedy began to tell the group about his innovative Ceasefire approach to crime control: a cheaper, more stripped-down, post-War-on-Drugs policing methodology that has dramatically lowered the homicide rate in some of America's most dangerous cities.

Meckler was energized. This was exactly the sort of second act he had in mind—a proven, nonideological way to remove "the heavy hand of the state," he tells Newsweek, "and give these communities the freedom to govern themselves."

And so after four hours at Vespaio, Meckler and the others had agreed to form a new alliance. Their goal: to take Kennedy's methods national. "It was a meeting of the minds, and of what are usually opposing cultures, that really represents the larger evolution going on right now," Kennedy says. "I was truly amazed."

By finding common ground on the unlikeliest of issues, could a Tea Party leader and a liberal academic actually help us overcome our criminal-justice impasse? One rustic Italian dinner does not, of course, a revolution make. But Kennedy is right: there is a "larger evolution going on right now." It's a transformation that is being fueled in part by penny-pinching, small-government conservatives like Meckler—conservatives who are realizing that it's far too invasive, expensive, and destructive to continue incarcerating every wrongdoer for every infraction. And because conservative activists don't have to tiptoe through the toxic crime debate like their office-seeking counterparts—who increasingly take their cues from the grassroots anyway—Kennedy & Co. are starting to believe that a groundswell among Meckler types could be the thing that finally gets criminal-justice reform off the ground.

As the son of an LAPD reserve policewoman turned Nevada County, Calif., corrections officer, Meckler was always primed to be skeptical of the GOP's tough-on-crime talking points. "Having grown up around law-enforcement folks, I know a large number who are very conservative and still think the war on drugs has been an immense failure," he says. "That's not a new position they've come to. I've been hearing this literally my whole life."

But it wasn't until he'd spent some time in the Tea Party, with its obsessive focus on balanced budgets and smaller government, that Meckler realized how well his conservative principles jibed with criminal-justice reform. It was all there, he says: a ballooning tab that was "busting state budgets"; a top-down, one-size-fits-all style of policing and imprisonment that was "making it hard for [former criminals] to become productive members of society"; and communities that had "lost the ability to take care of themselves" because they were "occupied" by agents of the state. "On the right, we always talk about self-governance," Meckler explains. "So I thought, why haven't we been applying those ideas to the criminal-justice system?"

He isn't the only conservative to come to that conclusion. Inspired by the Tea Party ethos, heavyweight GOP governors such as Bobby Jindal and Mitch Daniels are now working to soften sentences, reduce recidivism, and cut costs in their home states. Meanwhile, Right on Crime, a Texas-based conservative group backed by Newt Gingrich, Jeb Bush, and Grover Norquist, is championing reform on the national stage. As the outfit's mission statement puts it, there's nothing "conservative" about "spend[ing] vast amounts of taxpayer money on a strategy without asking whether it is providing taxpayers with the best public-safety return on their investment." Right on Crime points to the Lone Star State—which recently reduced its incarceration rate by 8 percent, cut crime by 6 percent, and saved $2 billion on prison construction by rerouting inmates to drug courts and treatment facilities—as an example of where that mindset can lead.

Kennedy (left) calls his dinner with Meckler and the others a “meeting of the minds, and of what are usually opposing cultures.” Courtesy of John Jay College of Criminal Justice (left); Mark Peterson / Redux

Earlier this year Meckler read Kennedy's 2011 memoir, Don't Shoot: One Man, a Street Fellowship, and the End of Violence in Inner-City America. He felt an immediate kinship. After two decades of working with inner-city cops to curb violent crime, Kennedy seemed to have cracked some kind of secret code. In the book (and later, at dinner) he explained what he'd learned. That no one in these communities really likes shootings, gang members included. That the number of gang members personally involved in such incidents is minuscule. That when the cops suddenly crack down on a few of these violent offenders and then invite the others to talk, the others do, in fact, show up (and listen). That whenever the cops give these gangsters a choice between (a) shooting people and going to prison or (b) not shooting people and going on with their lives, they almost always choose the latter. And that, as a result, murder rates tend to drop by staggering margins wherever these methods are applied. Kennedy's program didn't hew to liberal orthodoxy, placing the blame on society rather than the criminals themselves. Nor did it reflect conservative dogma. It just worked. "It was almost as if David had been reading what we'd been saying and was trying to speak our language," Meckler says. "But he wasn't. It was entirely organic."

Hence the summit in Austin and the new alliance. Later this month Meckler will launch his post–Tea Party Patriots initiative: a group called Citizens for Self Governance that will seek to "address any issue of self-governance that crosses party lines." Criminal-justice reform will top the list. While the Vespaio team has "not yet formalized anything," says Meckler ("we are having continuing discussions about that"), he believes that he'll soon be working alongside Chavis, Dunn, and Ratigan to help Kennedy's ready-to-go strategies become the national template for violent-crime control. Kennedy, for his part, is excited to have Meckler on board. "The right is really good at organizing, fundraising, and playing the long game," he says. "If that kind of energy is applied to criminal-justice reform, then it could really make a difference."