Steve Chapman

Marc Levin, policy director of Right on Crime, which is affiliated with the Texas Public Policy Foundation, believes this new approach fits with conservative principles like "limited government, personal responsibility, and recognition that people can change and be redeemed."

In an email, he said, "The research and experiences in many states have demonstrated that it is possible to both enhance public safety and reduce costs to taxpayers by redirecting many low-risk, low-level drug possession offenders into alternatives to incarceration that hold them accountable, break their habit, and enable them to hold down a job and be productive."

Texas, he says, has sharply reduced the number of drug offenders in lockup and saved $2 billion by closing prisons instead of building them. But the crime rate is lower than it's been since 1968. Republican governors in Georgia, Pennsylvania and Ohio have pushed similar reforms.

Mark Kleiman, a UCLA professor and author of "When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment," notes that one of the founders of Right on Crime was Newt Gingrich. During the 2012 presidential campaign, he marvels, Mitt Romney hit Gingrich on many issues, "but he never hit him on that. He obviously didn't think it was a vulnerability --

in a Republican primary.
The 2012 party platform, in fact, endorsed "new approaches to curbing drug abuse and diverting first-time offenders to rehabilitation."

Chronic failure has a way of changing minds. For all the resources poured into drug law enforcement in the last three decades, drugs remain widely available. In April, a poll by the Pew Research Center found that for the first time ever, a majority of Americans now favor legalizing marijuana -- up from 16 percent in 1990.

As Kleiman told me, "The agitated delirium about drugs and crime that has gripped this country since the 1970s is finally going away." Even a drug-induced haze can't last forever.

Steve Chapman

Steve Chapman is a columnist and editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune.

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