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Criminal Justice Reform Has Made it into Both Party Platforms. That’s a Big Deal.

It is now widely accepted knowledge that America’s prison population is unsustainable and embarrassingly high, at nearly 2.3 million people.

  • Natasha Camhi
August 1, 2016

Usually party platforms, in all of their densely-written glory, do not make the short list of buzz topics on the election, and their release is not greeted with much fanfare. But this year, in a rollicking and unpredictable campaign season, the politics around the platform are very different. This is particularly true when it comes to criminal justice reform – one of the few areas with bipartisan support.

For decades both parties drove a strong “tough on crime” stance, encouraging more incarceration. In 1968, Richard Nixon’s platform identified “lawlessness” as one of the greatest threats to the country, and many election cycles later George H. W. Bush’s platform stripped rights from those convicted of drug crimes while accusing criminals and their lawyers of dictating federal policy. Likewise, the Democrats’ 1996 platform under Bill Clinton praised mandatory “three-strikes-you’re-out” laws and promised states $8 billion in new funding for prison infrastructure. At the turn of the century, the Democratic Party continued to push “tougher punishments” as a solution for our broken justice system.

But this year, in a notable reversal of past policies, both the Republican and Democratic platforms include mentions of criminal justice reform. It is now widely accepted knowledge that America’s prison population is unsustainable and embarrassingly high, at nearly 2.3 million people. This simple statistic, in combination with increased public awareness of the system’s racial inequalities, has created a national climate of tension and mistrust that the presidential candidates cannot ignore. Their platforms reflect this reality.

In April, the Republican National Committee passed a resolution in which they demonstrated support for “effective criminal justice reforms for nonviolent offenders at the state and federal level that protect our communities, respect crime victims, restore families” and “safely reduce prison populations.” This language was unprecedented, and gave advocates across the country a reason to believe the political establishment was starting to get on board with reform.

But then in early July, just days after Philando Castile and Alton Sterling were killed by police, a sniper killed five officers in Dallas and another three were fatally shot in Baton Rouge. In response, Donald Trump re-branded himself as the “law and order” candidate, and the GOP replaced much of its commitment to reducing incarceration with strong statements in support of police. The final party platform passed at the convention in July includes the following:

  • An implicit agreement with reducing imprisonment by lauding the “Republican Governors and legislators who have been implementing criminal justice reforms like those proposed by our 2012 platform.”
  • An increase in alternatives to incarceration such as community sentencing, accountability courts, drug courts, and veterans treatment courts for first-time, nonviolent offenders.
  • Openness to “modifications” to mandatory minimums for “particular categories, especially nonviolent offenders and persons with drug, alcohol, or mental health issues.”
  • A “caution in the creation of new crimes” and “commission to purge the Code and the body of regulations of old crimes,” along with a call for “mens rea elements in the definition of any new crimes.”
  • Encouragement for states “to offer opportunities for literacy and vocational education.”
  • Support for law enforcement: The platform said “the current administration’s lack of respect …has been unprecedented” and that “the next president must not sow seeds of division and distrust between the police and the people they have sworn to serve and protect.”

Many assume that Democrats are naturally more supportive of reform, but the party’s history reveals hesitation to break with “tough-on-crime” tactics. However, in the past year both Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders have spoken openly on the issue. A draft platform released earlier this month revealed a commitment from the party to explicitly end mass incarceration.

This shift did not happen overnight. Advocacy groups across the country have been laboring to convince political leadership to adopt criminal justice reform language. Civil rights groups joined forces in a letter addressed to both the Republican and Democratic National Committees, and the Brennan Center teamed with The Nation on a  petition urging parties to prioritize criminal justice reform.

Here are a few highlights from the Democratic platform:

  • A commitment to “ending mass incarceration” – a phrase never before used in a party platform.
  • A promise to “reform mandatory minimum sentences and close private prisons and detention centers.”
  • Proposals to “invest more in jobs and education, and end the school-to-prison pipeline,” as well as remove obstacles to formerly incarcerated individuals by “banning-the-box, expanding reentry programs, and restoring voting rights.”
  • An avowal to end the death penalty.
  • Praise for law enforcement officials for their service, but also a call for more thorough officer training “on issues such as de-escalation and the appropriate use of force,” a demand for the use of body cameras, and a requirement that the Department of Justice “investigate all questionable or suspicious police-involved shootings,” as well as support for states that tackle the legal handling of police-involved shootings with greater transparency.

There are, of course, weaknesses in both platforms — the GOP ultimately didn’t explicitly prioritize reducing imprisonment as they did in the April resolution, and the Democrats made broad positive statements about reducing imprisonment but didn’t provide concrete details on how to accomplish that.

Yet the overall bipartisan consensus on criminal justice reform as demonstrated by these platforms is remarkable. Only by convincing our political leadership of the urgency of this cause will we see the right laws passed and policies implemented to truly bring the era of mass incarceration to an end. Commitments from both parties in their platforms are a step in the right direction. Let’s hope that red and blue legislators — in Congress and in the states — execute these new party priorities.