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NAACP, Right Wing foes get friendly
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Can prominent right-wingers like Newt Gingrich and Grover Norquist get along with the very liberal NAACP? Yes, they can, at least on the high cost of prisons.

I'm talking about the recent dance toward common ground taken by some prominent conservatives toward the very liberal National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

Such paragons of conservatism as Gingrich, a 2012 Republican presidential hopeful; Norquist, head of Americans for Tax Reform; and David A. Keene, former chairman of the American Conservative Union, have endorsed a new NAACP report, "Misplaced Priorities: Over Incarcerate, Under Educate."

Although they do not all agree with the NAACP's call for more spending on public education, they found common ground on this much: We Americans are spending too much on prisons for the benefit we get.

Over the last two decades, the report finds, state spending on prisons grew at six times the rate of state spending on higher education.

Even in the recession year of 2009, funding for public schools and colleges declined while 33 states increased their spending on prisons.

Of the nation's 2.3 million prison inmates, the report finds, more than 500,000 were convicted of a nonviolent drug offense. This has resulted largely from various wars on drugs over the past 40 years. Various crackdowns have led to more police stops, more arrests and more mandatory minimum sentences that judges have to impose, regardless of individual circumstances.

As a result, the report says, more than half of all inmates on the local, state and federal level have mental health or drug problems. Many of them could be handled better and at lower cost outside of prison.

An emerging and impressive roster of prominent conservatives agrees. One new cost-conscious group called Right on Crime includes Norquist, Gingrich, former Atty. Gen. Ed Meese and former drug czar William Bennett.

As some prisons are overcrowded and others stand empty because states can't afford to operate them, states are increasingly interested in alternative sentencing like home confinement, probation, ankle bracelets and reduced-sentence incentives for education and drug rehabilitation.

Even in notoriously tough-on-crime Texas, boasted NAACP President Ben Jealous during a "PBS NewsHour" report, "You have Tea Party activists and NAACP activists pushing the same (incarceration reform) bills." That's not bad for two groups that last summer were hurling charges of racism at each other.

"I'm delighted to work with the NAACP on this," Norquist told me, putting a new spin on his famous wish to shrink government "down to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub."

Although he's no softy on crime, he points out, costs have been driven up by lawmakers granting prosecutors what they want in budgets without taking a cost-benefit analysis. "Just spending money on something and calling it crime prevention doesn't make it so," he said. "You need to do a cost-benefit analysis of what works and what doesn't work."

What can be done? Disabuse yourself, first of all, of any belief in single, magic-bullet remedies for a problem this complex. Letting too many people go makes no more sense than locking too many people up.

But each level of government needs to take a fresh look at old assumptions about incarceration, many of which were developed in the heat of the super-predator crime fears and crack cocaine tragedies in the 1980s. States are learning new lessons about alternative sentencing that other states need to think about.

Significantly, while an emerging left-right coalition agrees on the need to find better uses of our prison money, they predictably disagree on what should be done with the savings. At a time when some states spend as much per inmate as a year's tuition to Harvard, the NAACP understandably wants the savings to be redirected to public education. Norquist would just as soon return it to the taxpayers. Hey, they can't agree on everything.

But "we can have that conversation another time," Norquist says. Indeed, despite his firm beliefs, he has long promoted a fundamental rule of political organizing: Don't let the issues on which you disagree get in the way of the issues on which you agree. That's a lesson more of our Washington leaders need to learn.