The last time a Clinton and a Bush ran for president, the country was awash in crime and the two parties were competing to show who could be tougher on murderers, rapists and drug dealers. Sentences were lengthened and new prisons sprouted up across the country.
But more than two decades later, declared and presumed candidates for president are competing over how to reverse what they see as the policy excesses of the 1990s and the mass incarceration that has followed. Democrats and Republicans alike are putting forth ideas to reduce the prison population and rethink a system that has locked up a generation of young men, particularly African-Americans.Former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, Senator Ted Cruz and Senator Rand Paul want to ease mandatory minimum sentences. Gov. Chris Christie wants to release nonviolent offenders pending trial without bail. Gov. Scott Walker, former Gov. Rick Perry and former Senator James Webb want to expand drug treatment as an alternative to prison. Senator Marco Rubio wants to make it harder to convict federal defendants without proving intent.
“This really does reflect a huge change in the political momentum from decades when parties and candidates competed to see who could be the most flamboyantly punitive,” said Michael Waldman, the president of the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University’s School of Law and a former aide to Mr. Clinton. Now, Mr. Waldman said, “there’s a competition for reform and to take on the issue of mass incarceration. It’s really unheard-of in recent decades.”The extent of that change is made evident in a new book Mr. Waldman’s center has compiled featuring essays by many of the major presidential candidates laying out ideas for tackling the criminal justice system. Mrs. Clinton and her Democratic rivals approach the issue from a social justice perspective, while Republicans like Mr. Cruz, Mr. Perry, Mr. Paul and Mr. Rubio see it through a fiscal, libertarian or religious lens, but they share a consensus about the goal.“There is an emerging consensus that the time for criminal justice reform has come,” Mr. Rubio wrote in the book. “A spirited conversation about how to go about that reform has begun.”
Significantly, [Mrs. Clinton's] husband added a foreword in which he implicitly agreed that some of the policies he himself embraced two decades ago were too extreme. “The drop in violence and crime in America has been an extraordinary national achievement,” Bill Clinton wrote. “But plainly, our nation has too many people in prison and for too long — we have overshot the mark.”Also included is a recent speech from Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., who has positioned himself to run in 2016 if Mrs. Clinton falters.
But read their supposed mea culpas closer, and one begins to realize they're not really apologizing for their policies or the lives and communities destroyed because of them. Note Clinton's "the drop in violence and crime" line, suggesting that it was because of his draconian policies that crime went down, and now we just have to sort out the collateral damage. Nothing could be further from the truth...these policies had nothing to do with the drop in crime.
While crime has fallen in recent decades, the prison population has risen, although it has plateaued in recent years. More than 2.2 million Americans are behind bars, and a National Research Council study found that the state and federal prison population in 2009 was seven times what it was in 1973. Although the United States makes up less than 5 percent of the world’s population, it has more than 20 percent of its prison population.The issue has been particularly acute among younger African-American men. Almost one in 12 black men from 25 to 54 are locked up, compared with one in 60 nonblack men in that age group. Many more have been released but have convictions on their records that make it hard to find jobs or vote.