Like many legislators, Texas state Representative Ray Allen likes to decorate his office with the expressions of thanks he receives from grateful citizens' groups. Lately, quite a few have been coming in. There's a paperweight from the American Civil Liberties Union. And a citation from the NAACP. And as soon as it arrives, he'll find a place for the plaque from a Latino activist group, the League of United Latin American Citizens.
All of this would be unexceptional but for one thing: Allen, who represents a blue-collar district in suburban Dallas County, is a conservative Republican. Just a few months ago, he was House sponsor of the Prenatal Protection Act, which essentially gives personhood to an unborn fetus. He was a co-author of last year's law allowing judges or juries to add years to the sentence of anyone convicted of making or selling illegal drugs that harm or kill their user. Earlier in his career, he backed a law allowing gun owners to carry concealed weapons.
The constituents who applauded those actions may have trouble reconciling themselves to some of Allen's new friends. He admits that his new office adornments, from the NAACP and the ACLU, "will not be helpful in my reelection campaign."
But legislative careers can take strange turns. Allen, who is 53, is the chairman of the House Corrections Committee, and in that role he has embarked on the politically tricky task--at least in Texas--of weaning the state away from its hard-line instincts when it comes to writing penal law. The problem, in a nutshell, is that prisons are expensive, and Texas can't really afford to lock up everyone it wants without building a lot more of them. The state spends over $5 billion every two years on criminal justice, and 80 percent of that money goes to running the prison system. "Prisons are extremely costly to taxpayers," he says simply. "We will have to view them as a resource to be conserved rather than our first option."
To that end, Allen this year wrote a measure requiring probation and treatment--rather than a prison term--for first-time offenders caught with small amounts of marijuana, cocaine or other illegal drugs. Allen knit together an unusual coalition of libertarians, civil liberties advocates and fiscal conservatives to win unanimous backing in both the House and the Senate.
Allen has shown a knack for working with an array of players to craft other controversial legislation as well. Last year, he authored a measure allowing state and local governments to protect the secrecy of information that might be useful for terrorists, but pleased freedom- of-information advocates by limiting that secrecy to public records relating directly to security concerns. He also stitched together a solid majority in favor of boosting the capacity of the state's medical licensing board to investigate and discipline doctors accused of delivering bad care, abusing drugs or sexually harassing patients.
Allen's ability to reach out across ideological lines will come in handy as he moves on to his next major challenge, which is to investigate alternatives to imprisonment, including probation, electronic monitoring, drug treatment and treatment for sex offenders. "We certainly have to think about and vigorously debate whether or not non-violent, non-repeat offenders should be sentenced to prison rather than sentenced to proven, effective alternatives," he says, sounding almost like a card-carrying member of the… well, better not to go there.
"I normally find myself disagreeing with almost every word the ACLU says, including pronouns," Allen says, "but on the first-time offender issue, they were intelligent, factual, cooperative and open to compromise and reason. It scares me. It suggests they're going to want to talk to me about other issues later."