Feeling the Bern or Ready for Hillary? Where The Democrats Stand on Criminal Justice

George Lavender January 18, 2016

Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, and Martin O'Malley have debated for the final time before the Iowa Caucus. Where do they stand on criminal justice issues?

Are you Feel­ing the Bern or Ready for Hillary? Here’s where the three Demo­c­ra­t­ic pres­i­den­tial can­di­dates stand on crim­i­nal jus­tice issues.

Hillary Clin­ton

Dur­ing this cam­paign Clin­ton has talked repeat­ed­ly about the need to end mass incar­cer­a­tion,” and she con­tin­ued that theme at the debate.

One out of three African Amer­i­can men may well end up going to prison. That’s the sta­tis­tic,” Clin­ton told the audi­ence I want peo­ple here to think what we would be doing if it was one out of three white men.”

Clinton’s posi­tions on crim­i­nal jus­tice issues have shift­ed over the years. As The Mar­shall Project puts it, Clin­ton has gone from young, ide­al­is­tic lawyer who rep­re­sent­ed peo­ple con­vict­ed of rape and mur­der and opposed the death penal­ty” to wife (and a vocal sup­port­er) of Bill Clin­ton, the tough-on-crime, pro-death penal­ty gov­er­nor of Arkansas” to the First Lady who vouched for a crime bill that sig­nif­i­cant­ly con­tributed to mass incarceration.”

Along with both Bernie Sanders and Mar­tin O’Malley, Clinton’s cam­paign has promised to elim­i­nate the sen­tenc­ing dis­par­i­ty between pow­der and crack cocaine which research has sug­gest­ed results in sig­nif­i­cant­ly harsh­er penal­ties for poor peo­ple and peo­ple of col­or. At the debate, Clin­ton said we have to move away from treat­ing the use of drugs as a crime and instead, move it to where it belongs, as a health issue.”

But there are dif­fer­ences between Clinton’s crim­i­nal jus­tice plans and those of her oppo­nents. For instance, both Sanders and O’Malley oppose cap­i­tal pun­ish­ment, while Clin­ton has said she is not in favor of abol­ish­ing the death penal­ty.

Clin­ton also faced crit­i­cism from activists ear­li­er in the cam­paign for her links to pri­vate prison com­pa­nies. Her cam­paign lat­er announced that they would no longer accept dona­tions from fed­er­al­ly reg­is­tered lob­by­ists or PACs for com­pa­nies involved in incar­cer­a­tion and that mon­ey she has already received will be donat­ed to char­i­ty. (Both her Demo­c­ra­t­ic oppo­nents have pledged to end for-prof­it incar­cer­a­tion if elected) 

Bernie Sanders

After fac­ing crit­i­cisms from some in the Black Lives Mat­ter move­ment Bernie Sanders released a wide-rang­ing set of cam­paign posi­tions, includ­ing sev­er­al pol­i­cy pledges specif­i­cal­ly on crim­i­nal jus­tice and polic­ing.

At the debate, Sanders not­ed that as May­or of Burling­ton he had worked very close­ly and well with police offi­cers, the vast major­i­ty of whom are hon­est, hard- work­ing peo­ple try­ing to do a dif­fi­cult job” but if a police offi­cer breaks the law, like any pub­lic offi­cial, that offi­cer must be held accountable.”

Sanders went on to say that police depart­ments should be de-mil­i­ta­rized” and that they should look like the com­mu­ni­ties they serve in their diver­si­ty.” (How you actu­al­ly achieve that is com­pli­cat­ed) He also argued when­ev­er any­body in this coun­try is killed while in police cus­tody, it should auto­mat­i­cal­ly trig­ger a U.S. attor­ney gen­er­al’s investigation.”

As a mem­ber of Con­gress, Sanders vot­ed against the death penal­ty at almost every oppor­tu­ni­ty, and has sup­port­ed efforts to decrim­i­nal­ize mar­i­jua­na. (He recent­ly called for the drug to be removed from the gov­ern­men­t’s list of banned sub­stances, a step fur­ther than his two oppo­nents who only want it recat­e­go­rized) He ini­tial­ly opposed an ear­ly ver­sion of what became The Vio­lent Crime Con­trol and Law Enforce­ment Act (1994)” which he said was not a crime pre­ven­tion bill” but a pun­ish­ment bill.” He vot­ed in favor of the final bill intro­duced by Sen­a­tor Joe Biden and signed into law by Pres­i­dent Bill Clin­ton, because, he said, it includ­ed the Vio­lence Against Women Act.

Mar­tin O’Malley

Mar­tin O’Malley has also made crim­i­nal jus­tice reform a cen­tral part of his campaign.

Among dozens of pol­i­cy pro­pos­als O’Mal­ley sup­ports are plans to Ban the Box” and restore vot­ing rights to peo­ple with felony records. As pres­i­dent, O’Malley says he would strong­ly sup­port leg­is­la­tion that would end the drug felon ban on access to SNAP and TANF assis­tance.” At the Jan­u­ary debate he was asked about his record in Maryland:

I drove our incar­cer­a­tion rate down to 20-year lows, and drove vio­lent crime down to 30-year lows, and became the first gov­er­nor south of the Mason-Dixon line to repeal the death penalty.

(While this is broad­ly-speak­ing cor­rect, the data sug­gests that incar­cer­a­tion rates and vio­lent crime had actu­al­ly been in decline before he took office as Governor.)

O’Malley has been crit­i­cized for sup­port­ing posi­tions on the cam­paign trail he opposed in office. What hap­pened to the zero-tol­er­ance Bal­ti­more may­or who became the no-parole-for-lif­ers gov­er­nor of Mary­land?” asks Dan Rodricks at the Bal­ti­more Sun Where’s the guy who was once bull­ish on manda­to­ry minimums?”

As Gov­er­nor, O’Malley vetoed a bill which would have rolled-back manda­to­ry min­i­mum sen­tences for sec­ond-time con­vict­ed drug deal­ers, and told a radio show drug deal­ing is a vio­lent crime.

O’Malley’s plat­form states that law enforce­ment must treat all com­mu­ni­ties fair­ly and earn their trust” and pro­pos­es a range of mea­sures to encour­age “ inde­pen­dent inves­ti­ga­tions of polic­ing cas­es” and strength­en fed­er­al civ­il rights pro­tec­tions.” Dur­ing the debate he also drew heav­i­ly on his record as May­or and Governor:

.. we were able to save a lot of lives doing things that actu­al­ly worked to improve police and com­mu­ni­ty rela­tions. The truth of the mat­ter is, we cre­at­ed a civil­ian review board. And many of these things are in the new agen­da for crim­i­nal jus­tice reform that I’ve put forward.

We cre­at­ed a civil­ian review board, gave them their own detec­tives. We required the report­ing of dis­cour­tesy, use of exces­sive force, lethal force. I repealed the pos­ses­sion of mar­i­jua­na as a crime in our state.

But O’Mal­ley’s lega­cy has been ques­tioned. One in three Mary­land res­i­dents in state prison are from Bal­ti­more and the death of Fred­die Gray in police cus­tody, as well as the riots that fol­lowed prompt­ed crit­i­cism of O’Mal­ley’s time in office. Matthew Cren­son, a polit­i­cal sceience pro­fes­sor at Johns Hop­kins Uni­ver­si­ty, told ThinkProgress, O’Malley’s tough-on-crime” approach might share some respon­si­bil­i­ty for the unrest.

One of the pos­si­ble costs is that this cre­ates a great deal of ten­sion in rela­tion­ships between the police and com­mu­ni­ties in their polic­ing, because it means they’re always has­sling peo­ple for minor offens­es,” he said. And that could con­ceiv­ably cre­ate the atmos­phere in which it’s very easy for a riot to break out when some­thing like Fred­die Gray’s death occurs..” Con­tin­ue reading…

George Laven­der is an award-win­ning radio and print jour­nal­ist based in Los Ange­les. Fol­low him on Twit­ter @GeorgeLavender.
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