In the ’80s, Republican Patrick J Nolan was leader of the Republican minority in the California State Assembly. Like many with conservative ideals, he wanted to reinstate the death penalty and was fighting for tougher prison sentences. He was also a leading sponsor of a prison-building boom in California.
After a stint in prison for racketeering, however, he awoke to the problems of the criminal justice system and became a huge advocate of prison reform in the United States, as detailed by Bill Keller in the New Yorker.
Nolan’s legal troubles began at the end of the ’80s with an FBI bribery sting in California that would come to be as “Shrimpscam.” The operation targeted elected officials who might be taking illegal contributions — and even bribes.
As a result, Nolan was indicted on counts of racketeering, conspiracy, extortion, and money laundering, which he saw as “prosecutorial bullying,” according to the New Yorker. Rather than risk going to trial and facing a much longer sentence, Nolan
pleaded guilty to one count of racketeering
for a lesser one — 33 months in prison.
“I saw that the F.B.I. and the government prosecutors weren’t interested in the truth, and that was a shock to me,” he told the New Yorker
Nolan spent 25 months in two prisons, according to the New Yorker, which allowed him to see how American justice works, namely disproportionately incarcerating young, minority men from poor backgrounds and then releasing them into society with little skills or education. Many also return to prison shortly after their releases.
Currently, the United States hosts almost 25% of the world’s prisoners with about 2.4 million Americans behind bars, or about 0.7% of the population. Since the 1980s, federal inmates numbers have soared almost 800% as law enforcement started their “war on drugs.” A report by the U.S. Department of Justice that came out last year also highlighted the huge number of inmates who were sent back to prison once they were released. About a third were back in prison within six months of their release and a staggering 76.6% were back in jail within five years.
Shocked at what he experienced in prison, Nolan published, in the California Political Review, an attack on the 1994 crime bill that imposed tougher sentences, while still behind bars. He also wrote a ‘chatty newsletter’ that his wife distributed to supporters.
Lastly, Nolan, a devout Catholic, helped organise religious study groups in jail and treated the other inmates as a constituency he wanted to charm, some of them he still corresponds with today, according to the New Yorker.
Post-prison political career
Before his arrest, Nolan wanted to reinstate the death penalty, which the Supreme Court had temporarily suspended. He also believed that the exclusionary rule, which doesn’t allow officers to use evidence gathered illegally, had become a loophole exploited by lawyers of guilty clients.
“I went to the legislature very pro-cop and with a get-tough-on-crime attitude,” Nolan told the New Yorker.
In 1996, however, after his release, the Republican figure moved to Washington to run the Justice Fellowship — a lobby organisation for more human treatment of inmates.
In his leading role, Nolan fought a proposal which would have restricted inmates’ right to file lawsuits and helped secure the passage of the Prison Rape Elimination Act.
During this time, Nolan also gathered a number of right-wing figures such as David Keene, the former president of the NRA, Grover Norquist, an activist, and Edwin Meese, President Reagan’s Attorney General, as his allies.
A major helping hand came in 2007, when Texas Governor Rick Perry supported a reform that lead the state to close three prison facilities by 2013, significantly decreasing the prison population in the state.
“If you say you’ve done these impressive things on prison reform in Vermont, nobody’s really listening,” Vikrant Reddy, a former Texas Public Policy Foundation lawyer told the New Yorker. “If you say they did it in Texas, then you have a captive audience.”
‘Woodstock of criminal justice’
Aside from early victories, Nolan continues to fight for reform through organisations like the Bipartisan Summit on Criminal Justice Reform, once coined as the “Woodstock of criminal justice,” according to the New Yorker.
Although many issues still divide the blue and red camps and change happens slowly, Nolan thinks reforms will move in the right direction. In Congress, Democrats and Republicans have found common ground on many issues, such as cutting back mandatory minimum sentences and using probation, treatment, and community service as alternatives to prison for low-level crimes, according to the New Yorker.
Nolan, however, remains cautious that that one ‘sensational’ crime or spike in crime rate could ruin all the efforts to unite Republicans and Democrats, according to the New Yorker.
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