In the process, right-wingers have allied with liberals who long advocated such an approach, detoxifying one of the most poisonous political debates at a time when US party divisions have never been sharper.
“This used to be one of the most emotive and ideologically divisive issues in the country,” says Adam Gelb of the Pew Center on the States, a social-policy research charity which is backing the initiative. “We are starting to see the triumph of sound science over sound bites.”
“There is not agreement on the causes of crime or even the purpose of punishment,” Gelb continues, “but there is agreement on the solutions. Liberals and conservatives are getting to the same destination from very different routes.”
Now the Texan tactics are being adopted in other “deep red” republican states such as Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky, Oklahoma and South Carolina, while well-known conservatives flock to promote the cause, including Newt Gingrich, Jeb Bush, Bobby Jindal and Grover Norquist. It is a Nixon in China moment.
“The fact that it began in Texas has resonated around the country,” Gelb says. “We hear again and again that if Texas can do it, then it cannot be soft on crime.”
It has been an iron rule in US politics that candidates win elections by talking tough on crime. The result has been a wave of stiff sentencing laws which, combined with the backfiring “war on drugs,” mean that the prison population is currently growing 13 times more quickly than the general population. As a result, a nation with 5 percent of the global population accounts for 25 percent of prisoners worldwide — and is spending ￡43 billion (US$69 billion) a year keeping them there. The criminal justice system also stands accused of worsening racial inequality, with Hispanic men three times as likely to be locked up as white men and black men nearly seven times more likely. According to a landmark Pew report, one in nine black men between the ages of 20 and 34 is behind bars.
Texas typified the trend. Just eight years ago, it had the highest incarceration rate in the world, with one in 20 adults in prison, on parole or on probation. The biggest deficit in state history had led to cuts in probation, giving judges little alternative but to increase prison admissions.
In 2006, however, a political earthquake started to shake conventional wisdoms. It began when the state budget highlighted the need for US$2 billion for seven new prisons to accommodate a predicted 17,700 extra inmates by this year. When Republican stalwart Jerry Madden was appointed chairman of the House Corrections Committee, the part of the state government responsible for criminal justice, jail and parole, he was asked to avoid building more prisons since they were too expensive.
The white-haired Madden is an unlikely hero of prison reform. A fan of former US president George W Bush and sympathetic to the Tea Party, he happily describes himself as “a typical Texan Republican — which makes me very conservative when viewed nationally.”