GOP Takes Step Forward on Justice Reform

The Republican platform on criminal justice reform isn't great, but it's a vast improvement over the tough-on-crime rhetoric of the 20th century.

July 19, 2016

Cross-posted on U.S. News & World Report

Last night’s Republican National Convention kicked off with a series of speeches focused on law and order during in an evening themed “Make America Safe Again.” Amidst a backdrop of recent shootings in Dallas and Baton Rouge that left 8 policeman dead, and with Black Lives Matter protesters standing outside the Cleveland convention holding signs stating “I Ain’t Voting Until #blacklivesmatter,” former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani told a cheering Republican crowd: “The vast majority of Americans do not feel safe. They fear for our police officers who are being targeted, with a target on their back.” Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke Jr. was similarly strident.

All this just three months after the Republican National Committee unanimously passed a resolution supporting broad reforms to the nation’s criminal justice system.

But as the convention neared and the perception of an increase in crime has risen, the GOP has teetered back toward harsh, old policies. The slide back has not been complete – there are still reform elements in the mix on the national level. But there clearly has been a hardening toward old-fashioned, “tough-on-crime” sensibilities.

Earlier on Monday, the GOP announced its final platform. The criminal justice language veers from the April resolution on reducing incarceration and toughens positions on policing and imprisonment. For example, the platform now scolds the Obama administration for meddling with local policing, stating: “The current Administration’s lack of respect for them, from White House intervention in local arrests to the Attorney General’s present campaign of harassment against police forces around the country, has been unprecedented.” The GOP platform also call for mens rea reform, which ultimately protects corporations.

But some aspects of the platform unveiled yesterday went in a positive direction. It applauds “the Republican Governors and legislators who have been implementing criminal justice reforms,” for example, and endorses the implementation of drug courts and programs that keep first time offenders out of jails and prisons. The GOP calls for more education and vocational training of inmates behind bars. And it acknowledges the need to reform the nation’s harsh mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent offenders and those with drug, alcohol and mental health issues (unfortunately, without suggesting that the use of these onerous sentences should be dramatically reduced).

Criminal justice reform has emerged as perhaps the pre-eminent bipartisan issue of the day. Although conservative policymakers championed the draconian laws that overtook legislatures in the last decades and contributed to the nation’s mass incarceration rates, there is a growing conservative movement to rethink failed policies that cost taxpayers upwards of $80 billion a year and produce recidivism rates that all sides agree represent an abominable failure.

Although it is disappointing the GOP didn’t approve language to “safely reduce prison populations,” as they did in the April resolution, it still is significant the party has come as far as it has given its history on criminal justice.

In 1968, for example, the 1968 Republican Party platform – when Richard Nixon clinched the Republican presidential nomination – proclaimed, “Lawlessness is crumbling the foundations of American society.” In Nixon’s famous presidential campaign television spot, his deep, guttural voice is heard in the background: “In recent years, crime in this country has grown nine times as fast as the population. At the current rate, the crimes of violence in America will double by 1972. We cannot accept that kind of future for America.”

Twenty years later, when Vice President George H. W. Bush won the Republican nomination, the GOP platform called for those who were convicted of any drug crime to become ineligible for discretionary federal assistance, grants, loans and contracts. Two presidential election cycles later in 1996, Kansas Sen. Bob Dole clinched the Republican nomination the week his party platform noted, “For too long government policy has been controlled by criminals and their defense lawyers. Democrat Congresses cared more about rights of criminals than safety for Americans.”

And 20 years after Dole ran for president, the Trump-Pence ticket is running on a criminal justice platform that is a bit of a mixed bag: pro-reform on mandatory minimums and diversion programs, but far to the right on policing and mens rea reform. It’s politically correct today to argue that party platforms are nearly as meaningless as party conventions. But Republicans in Cleveland this week have just staked new ground about where they stand on criminal justice.

The GOP has announced its official party platform in front of the Democrats, who will meet next week in Philadelphia with a criminal justice agenda of their own. Although the GOP did not stick to its groundbreaking reform-minded ways on the need to reduce incarceration from their April resolution and has reverted back to some tough-on-crime policies, today’s GOP platform acknowledges that many of the draconian policies of the past – that even the most ardent conservatives now concede have failed – cannot continue.