If only Nixon could go to China, then, in the opinion of Grover Norquist, only conservatives can reform the criminal justice system.

The president of Americans for Tax Reform joined Texas Governor Rick Perry and former New York Police Commissioner Bernie Kerik to speak against mandatory minimum sentences and in favor of a criminal justice system more focused on rehabilitation than simple retribution. As Perry put it, “We’re not a soft on crime state, but I hope we get the reputation of being a smart on crime state.”

Kerik has experienced the criminal justice system from both sides, first as a cop, then as an inmate when he pled guilty to eight felony tax and false statement charges. He spent three years in jail, but was able to resume his life and his consultancy work when he was freed. That opportunity isn’t available to most felons, he pointed out. In his experience,

I was sentenced to three years, I knew men who were sentenced to a year and a day, but it’s not really a year and a day. A felony conviction is a life sentence. … You can’t punish people for life for making a mistake

Perry agreed with Kerik, saying that the mandatory minimums and other sentencing guidelines are “a really bad concept.” Long jail stays are costly to the state (which must feed and house criminals) and to the prisoners themselves (who spend more time adrift). He’s worked to shorten sentences where it’s safe to do so, and, as a result, Texas closed two prisons last August.

Perry may seem like an unlikely spokesman for criminal justice reform, having come under fire from reform groups like the Innocence Project, which has repeatedly petitioned to commute death penalty sentences without success. But Perry draws a distinction between death penalty or life without parole sentences, which are intended to sunder a criminal permanently from civil society, and shorter sentences, which, due to a dearth of rehabilitation programs, leave criminals unprepared for reintegration and force a de facto separation.

The moderator and director of the American Conservative Union’s Center for Criminal Justice Reform, Pat Nolan, argued that restrictions on felons had gone beyond those required for public safety, pointing out that “barber” is among the many professions that felons are barred from entering. Hair cutting is, ironically enough, one of the few skills a convict is very likely to learn on the inside.

Conservatives don’t retain enough of their skepticism of bureaucracy when the topic is criminal justice, Nolan said. He told the attendees that conservatives “should be as suspicious of the Department of Corrections and their spending as we are of the Departments of Transportation and Health.”

His sentiment was echoed by Katherine Mangu-Ward of Reason at a subsequent panel on the future of the ACU when she said, “When you put someone in charge of environmental regulation, they’re probably going to be terrible at it, but when you give them a gun then they’re the armed services or a cop. I think it would be a good idea for us to carry over our skepticism about the EPA.”

There was no debate at the criminal justice panel; all the speakers seemed to agree on the necessary reforms. The question of who was blocking these reforms was left unanswered. The closest hint was given when Norquist said that these reforms had to begin in red states, since there would be too much skepticism for pilot programs from states like Vermont for the results to be taken seriously by conservatives. The Right On Crime project, to which Norquist is a signatory, is working, state by state, to make the case for reform to skeptical legislators.

Right On Crime comes armed with statistics on recidivism rates and taxpayer money saved, but, near the end of the panel, Rick Perry put aside pragmatic concerns to explain his support in terms of values. He told the audience simply, “The idea that we lock people up, throw them away, never give them a chance at redemption is not what America is about.”