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Craig Mastantuono March 18, 2019



"What are you going to do about crime?" It's a question that all political candidates have to answer or avoid at some point. Criminal justice is a recurring topic in national and local elections for every office: executive, legislative, and judicial. What a candidate has to say about crime and punishment speaks volumes about that person's views on justice, violence, crisis, community, redemption, retribution, in short, about a lot of things that speak to the candidate's values and belief system.

In recent years, criminal justice has become an even hotter topic of discussion, with a remarkably shifting ideological framework on whether our justice system is, in fact, just and effective. By example, the term "mass incarceration" was not common in public discussion about the criminal justice  system until the 2010's, gaining popularity after the publication of Michelle Alexander’s book “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.” For decades during the prior Tough-on-Crime 1980's and 90's, advocating for lengthy incarceration sentences and harsher penalties was the political safe place for candidates seeking election. It seemed that no candidate could be too tough on crime; being perceived as soft on crime was political death. Just recall Willie Horton and Mike Dukakis' debate answer on the death penalty in the 1988 presidential campaign for an example of "Soft-on-Crime-ing" someone to election defeat.

But after many years of a more-is-better approach to incarceration and blindness to racial disparities in how the justice system treats people, the debate has certainly shifted. Many now question how we became the number one incarceration nation in the world, and why people of color are arrested, convicted and locked up at alarmingly higher rates than white people. Our firm has written about criminal justice issues extensively in the past, in this blog and elsewhere, for years. We've seen the shifting debate, and the public's movement toward a more critical approach. More people believe we have too many people in prison, that the price is too high in monetary and human cost, and that racial bias affects it all.

As the Democratic National Committee convention comes to Milwaukee in July 2020, we will try to highlight what the politicians and parties are saying about crime and criminal justice, mass incarceration and rehabilitation, racial disparities and equal treatment in the justice system. We'll start with the major parties and their respective criminal justice platforms from the 2016 presidential election.

First up is the Democratic Party platform on crime and criminal justice, reprinted in full below. The 2016 DNC platform opposed the death penalty, supported removing marijuana from the list of schedule one controlled substances, and generally opposed mandatory minimum sentences in favor of prevention and rehabilitation over incarceration. It singled out the War on Drugs as ineffective, urging expansion of treatment and diversion courts. The 2016 DNC criminal justice platform came further toward reform in this area than any political platform in recent history.

Of course, the platform ultimately died with Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton's loss in November 2016, and despite a tough-on-crime Republican platform that year, Republican President Donald Trump eventually signed the First Step Act into law with wide bipartisan support in early 2019, which reduces mandatory minimum sentences in certain instances and expands "good time credits" for well-behaved prisoners looking for shorter sentences. It appears that both parties are now embracing reform issues, such as questioning the cost of incarceration and supporting treatment initiative courts. As the Democratic candidates and the DNC move towards Milwaukee in 2020, they will very likely move their positions and the debate even further toward meaningful criminal justice reform, and we'll bring you the highlights here.

Next Up: the 2016 Republican Party platform.


Democrats are committed to reforming our criminal justice system and ending mass incarceration. Something is profoundly wrong when almost a quarter of the world’s prison population is in the United States, even though our country has less than five percent of the world’s population. We will reform mandatory minimum sentences and close private prisons and detention centers. Research and evidence, rather than slogans and sound bites, must guide criminal justice policies.

We will rebuild the bonds of trust between law enforcement and the communities they serve. Across the country, there are police officers inspiring trust and confidence, honorably doing their duty, deploying creative and effective strategies, and demonstrating that it is possible to prevent crime without relying on unnecessary force. They deserve our respect and support, and we should learn from those examples and build on what works.

We will work with police chiefs to invest in training for officers on issues such as de-escalation and the creation of national guidelines for the appropriate use of force. We will encourage better police-community relations, require the use of body cameras, and stop the use of weapons of war that have no place in our communities. We will end racial profiling that targets individuals solely on the basis of race, religion, ethnicity, or national origin, which is un-American and counterproductive. We should report national data on policing strategies and provide greater transparency and accountability. We will require the Department of Justice to investigate all questionable or suspicious police-involved shootings, and we will support states and localities who help make those investigations and prosecutions more transparent, including through reforming the grand jury process. We will assist states in providing a system of public defense that is adequately resourced and which meets American Bar Association standards. And we will reform the civil asset forfeiture system to protect people and remove perverse incentives for law enforcement to “police for a profit.”

Instead of investing in more jails and incarceration, we need to invest more in jobs and education, and end the school-to-prison pipeline. We will remove barriers to help formerly incarcerated individuals successfully re-enter society by “banning the box,” expanding reentry programs, and restoring voting rights. We think the next President should take executive action to ban the box for federal employers and contractors, so applicants have an opportunity to demonstrate their qualifications before being asked about their criminal records.

The “war on drugs” has led to the imprisonment of millions of Americans, disproportionately people of color, without reducing drug use. Whenever possible, Democrats will prioritize prevention and treatment over incarceration when tackling addiction and substance use disorder. We will build on effective models of drug courts, veterans’ courts, and other diversionary programs that seek to give nonviolent offenders opportunities for rehabilitation as opposed to incarceration.

Because of conflicting federal and state laws concerning marijuana, we encourage the federal government to remove marijuana from the list of “Schedule 1″ federal controlled substances and to appropriately regulate it, providing a reasoned pathway for future legalization. We believe that the states should be laboratories of democracy on the issue of marijuana, and those states that want to decriminalize it or provide access to medical marijuana should be able to do so. We support policies that will allow more research on marijuana, as well as reforming our laws to allow legal marijuana businesses to exist without uncertainty. And we recognize our current marijuana laws have had an unacceptable disparate impact in terms of arrest rates for African Americans that far outstrip arrest rates for whites, despite similar usage rates.

We will abolish the death penalty, which has proven to be a cruel and unusual form of punishment. It has no place in the United States of America. The application of the death penalty is arbitrary and unjust. The cost to taxpayers far exceeds those of life imprisonment. It does not deter crime. And, exonerations show a dangerous lack of reliability for what is an irreversible punishment.

We have been inspired by the movements for criminal justice that directly address the discriminatory treatment of African Americans, Latinos, Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, and American Indians to rebuild trust in the criminal justice system.

source: https://democrats.org/about/party-platform/

Next up in our occasional series: the 2016 RNC Platform.