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Democrats Inconsistent On Criminal Justice Reform

Tagged under: Research USA Politics Criminal Justice
By Omid Ghaffari-Tabrizi on January 19, 2016.

A picture of the Democrat party logo.

2015 was marked by the bipartisan cooperation on real criminal justice reform. Even with civil unrest in cities like Ferguson, Missouri and Baltimore, Maryland as well as an uptick in violent crime in certain metropolitan areas like Chicago, Illinois, both parties joined (PDF warning) to push for real, systematic change.

But this is only one side of the Democrats positions. President Bill Clinton presided over an "era of mass incarceration" and President Barack Obama has done little, if anything, to bring it to an end. You wouldn't know it based on the way left-leaning media covers the topic.

Going as far up as Vice President Joe Biden, the Democratic party has pushed through some of the most damaging crime bills in modern history. These include the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986, which created 100-to-1 disparity in sentences for crack and cocaine convictions as well as the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, which was the largest crime bill in the history of the United States, earmarking $9.7 billion for new prisons and $6.1 billion for law enforcement designed prevention programs.

Even among the 3 Democrats currently running to be elected as their party's nominee to run for President, there is a wide disparity between their positions. Using Real Clear Politics' current poll average from today, January 19, 2016, we compare the positions taken by Clinton, Sanders, and O'Malley on criminal justice reform.

An image of Hillary Clinton.

1. Hillary Clinton, 51.2%.

Statements on Criminal Justice:

Perhaps surprising to some and not so surprising to others, Hillary Clinton is the hardest of the Democratic candidates to pin down when it comes to her position on criminal justice reform. She worked to save Henry Giles, a mentally handicapped man, from the electric chair. She quickly then became a vocal supporter of her husband's reign as Governor of Arkansas, one that was characterized as a tough-on-crime, pro-death penalty reign and included the execution of Rickey Ray Rector, a mentally handicapped man.

She was also a key supporter of the Crime Control Act of 1994, a bill which is blamed for significantly raising the incarcerated population. When speaking to the ninth annual "Women In Policing" awards ceremony on August 10, 1994, she proudly proclaimed "There will be more police on the street, a hundred thousand more police officers, with flexibility given to local communities to determine how best to use them. We will be able to say, loudly and clearly, that for repeat, violent, criminal offenders – three strikes and you're out. We are tired of putting you back in through the revolving door."

In 1996, when talking to Keene State University about President Bill Clinton's campaign principles, she spoke in support of the additional billions of dollars given to police forces to fight crime, and in particular, street gangs. She stated "They are not just gangs of kids anymore. They are often the kinds of kids that are called 'super-predators.' No conscience, no empathy. We can talk about why they ended up that way but first we have to bring them to heel and the President has asked the FBI to launch a very concerted effort against gangs everywhere."

She has recently spoken in support of criminal justice reform, seemingly coming full circle. However, as recently as October 28, 2015, she said she opposed abolishing the death penalty.

Contact: As the establishment's favorite to win the Democratic nomination, Clinton's campaign needs to hear from everyone about their thoughts on criminal justice reform and retroactive expungement opportunities.

An image of Bernie Sanders.

2. Bernie Sanders, 38.0%.

Statements on Criminal Justice:

With a very wide ranging list of what he views to be under the umbrella of criminal justice reform, Bernie Sanders is as consistent as they come in his positions the nation's criminal justice system. When it comes to the death penalty, he has voted against every single bill that expanded the death penalty, except for the Crime Control Act of 1994, which he voted for because of an amendment that would have replaced all federal death sentences with life in prison, but that amendment ultimately failed and the law went through without it. As recently as October 29, 2015, Sanders took to the Senate floor to call for an end to the death penalty.

In fact, when he spoke (YouTube video) about the Crime Control Act of 1994, he voiced his opposition to the idea that harsher penalties would decrease the crime rate. "Mr. Speaker," Sanders said "all the jails in the world – and we already imprison more people per capita than any other country – and all the executions in the world, will not make that situation right. We can either educate or electrocute. We can create meaningful jobs, rebuilding our society, or we can build more jails. Mr. Speaker, let us create a society of hope and compassion, not one of hate and vengeance." At the end, he did mention that while he had "a number of serious problems with the crime bill, one part of it I vigorously support is the Violence Against Women Act – we urgently need the 1.8 billion dollars in this bill to combat the epidemic of violence against women on the streets and in the homes of America."

In terms of reform, he has also been consistent. Examples include his vote in 2000, when he voted yes on an appropriations bill that supported creating alternative sentences in terms of rehabilitation programs. He has also spoke out about how costly and ineffective the War On Drugs has actually been. One of the best ways to keep people out of prison, according to Sanders (YouTube video), is to create "jobs, not jails." To that end, he proposed a bill that would rebuild the nation's infrastructure, putting millions of Americans to work. He has also called for automatic DOJ-led investigations into police-involved deaths. When speaking to CNN about his views on the unrest in Baltimore, he came out in support of police body cameras in order to discourage, detect, and eliminate police misconduct.

Contact: Bernie Sanders doesn't have an official contact page, but he does have various social media accounts available under the "More..." button on his homepage. Use your platform of choice to tell him that the most important part about criminal justice reform is retroactive expungement of records.

An image of Martin O'Malley.

3. Martin O'Malley, 2.2%.

Statements on Criminal Justice:

As Governor of Maryland, Martin O'Malley signed legislation that made his state the 18th to repeal the death penalty. In his current campaign, he has called for ending the death penalty on the federal level as well. After the Boston Marathon bomber was sentenced to death, O'Mally told reporters, "The death penalty is ineffective as a deterrent, and the appeals process is expensive and cruel to the surviving family members."

This does not mean he embraces liberal positions when it comes to criminal justice, however. His record as mayor of Baltimore showed that he had established a zero-tolerance policing strategy, something that led to the targeting and abuse of black communities. Executive Director of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, Neil Franklin blamed those policies for the police culture that led to the Freddie Gray shooting, stating that "these programs here in Baltimore City under the leadership of then-Mayor Martin O'Malley ... over 20 percent of those people who were arrested were released with no charges because there was no probable cause for the arrest."

Even the creator of "The Wire", David Simon, spoke out against O'Malley, stating that he "taught the police department that they could go a step beyond the manufactured probable cause and the drug-free zones and the humbles – [they could engage in] the targeting of suspects through less-than-constitutional procedure."

Contact: Martin O'Malley doesn't have an official contact page either, but his social media accounts are on the top right of his official page where you can tell him your thoughts. You can also point out the importance of expungement on a national scale.

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