ASA SPEAKS: The new governor has the chance to chart a new road on criminal justice issues. BRIAN CHILSON

There’s a must-read New York Times piece today on developing fault lines within the GOP on topics such as police militarization and draconian sentencing guidelines.

As with issues of national security and privacy, there’s a stark difference between the lock-em-up mentality of the establishment old guard — think Rudy Giuliani’s recent inflammatory remarks — and the libertarian leanings of folks like Kentucky’s Sen. Rand Paul, whose political philosophy tends towards a much greater suspicion of all things state-sponsored:


After years of instinctively siding with the police — with Ronald Reagan railing against “arson and murder in Watts” in his 1966 campaign for governor and Mr. Bush using Willie Horton’s furlough to defeat Michael S. Dukakis — Republicans are now more divided when it comes to crime and law enforcement. This is in part because of raw politics: The country is increasingly diverse, and the party can no longer win presidential elections without making inroads among minority voters.

But there are also deeper tensions between the Republicans’ traditional tough-on-crime approach and a rising skepticism about government power among conservatives and libertarians in the party. Few prominent figures sided with the authorities in the aftermath of Michael Brown’s death in Ferguson, for example, and Mr. Paul notably spoke out about the treatment of young blacks by the police.

Unabashed libertarians tend to see the mark of Leviathan on both Obamacare and drug sentencing laws, both income taxes and NSA surveillance. Such folks are still a minority in the GOP, to be sure, but they’re ascendant among younger voters within the party’s activist base, Arkansas included. Paul, for one, sees reforming an apartheid criminal justice system that’s outrageously wasteful of both human lives and taxpayer dollars as an unprecedented opportunity for outreach by Republicans.

That makes me wonder — are you listening, Asa Hutchinson?


On the campaign trail, the incoming Arkansas governor put more effort than most Republicans into courting the black vote. Hutchinson didn’t make inroads for a simple reason — most African Americans are liberal on most issues. (This is a fact, by the way, that continually confounds Republican strategists, who can’t stop indulging in fantasies that the retrograde views about same-sex marriage held by some evangelical black voters will soon translate into wholesale abandonment of progressive policies, which promote the everyday self-interest of black communities. Yep. Any day now.)

Asa Hutchinson ran his 2014 campaign well, but it was built on caution and GOP boilerplate. He had nothing new to offer black voters, only the same supply-side promises of economic growth that every Republican talks about. But criminal justice reform offers an opportunity. While Hutchinson is no libertarian, he could still take a page from Rand Paul’s new playbook.


There are so many ways Hutchinson could lead the way within his party on these issues. Symbolically, he could weigh in on the Eugene Ellison wrongful death suit that’s being heard right now by the U.S. Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals. By pointing out the obvious — there’s a big problem with two cops walking into an unarmed 67-year-old man’s apartment and shooting him dead — Asa could build immediate bridges with black Arkansans who feel the deck is stacked against them when it comes to law enforcement.

More substantively, Hutchinson could address drug sentencing guidelines and the systemic failures of the re-entry system for ex-offenders in Arkansas, almost half of which will end up back in prison within three years of their release. The governor-elect has spent years at the federal Drug Enforcement Agency; he surely knows that sentencing a man to decades in prison (at astronomical cost to the public) for possession of less than an ounce of crack is sheer lunacy. He’s also got a report on his desk from the Arkansas Department of Community Corrections that details how to reduce recidivism rates, if the state has the guts to do it. 

This legislative session, chronically underfunded prisons will be in the spotlight. There’s an opportunity to make that conversation about something bigger than just dollars, to make the case that law enforcement, courts and prisons are all in need of reforms that center around reducing incarceration rates and rebuilding public trust in the system. If he seizes the moment, Hutchinson could lead a bipartisan effort to make that happen. Now that’s how you reach out to black voters.