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Democratic Leadership Is Missing In Action on Mass Incarceration

If the Republican Party makes criminal justice reform a priority, they’ll be the first major party to do so, ever. Democrats need to catch up.

May 31, 2016

Cross-posted at The Nation.

PETI­TION: Tell Demo­cratic and Repub­lican Lead­ers to Get On Board With Ending Mass Incar­cer­a­tion

Even though it now looks like Amer­ic­ans will be deprived the drama of a contested Repub­lican conven­tion, the gath­er­ing in Clev­e­land could hold at least one surprise.

The Repub­lic­ans are set to vote on an RNC resol­u­tion to reduce mass incar­cer­a­tion. The meas­ure asks for “reforms for nonvi­ol­ent offend­ers at the state and federal level” and urges “state legis­lat­ors and Congress to…provide substance abuse treat­ment to addicts, emphas­ize work and educa­tion, and imple­ment policies that cut costs while obtain­ing better outcomes.”

Not so fast. If the Repub­lican Party makes crim­inal justice reform a prior­ity, they’ll be the first major party to do so, ever. Demo­crats need to catch up. Adding ending mass incar­cer­a­tion to their own plat­form would mark a signi­fic­ant step, boldly break­ing with their past polit­ics.

So what have the Demo­crats said about crim­inal justice?

Recent Demo­cratic plat­forms haven’t merely been silent; they have actu­ally called for policies creat­ing more impris­on­ment, and then applauded the result. Mentions of progress­ive altern­at­ives are hard to find.

In 1992, Demo­crats suppor­ted altern­at­ives to incar­cer­a­tion, such as “community service and boot camps for first-time offend­ers.” But four years later the plat­form went in the oppos­ite direc­tion. It praised mandat­ory “three-strikes-you’re-out” laws, truth-in-senten­cing provi­sions that limited earned early release, and “$8 billion in new fund­ing to help states build new prison cells.”

At the turn of the century, the party still cham­pioned “tougher punish­ments” as a way to fix “an over­burdened justice system that lets thugs off easy,” and applauded federal fund­ing for “new prison cells” as a major success story (a clear nod to the 1994 Crime Bill, which paid states to increase impris­on­ment).

This year’s Demo­cratic pres­id­en­tial candid­ates have broken with this legacy. Both Hillary Clin­ton and Bernie Sanders have prom­in­ently featured prison reform in their campaigns and vocally noted that the 1994 Crime Bill, which they both suppor­ted, went too far.

Yet Demo­crats still lag behind. Today’s move­ment to end mass incar­cer­a­tion has largely been led by Repub­lic­ans.

If the federal Senten­cing Reform and Correc­tions Act passes Congress, advoc­ates will have Repub­lican Senat­ors Mike Lee (Utah) and John Cornyn (Texas) to thank for court­ing support for the bill and hammer­ing out comprom­ises with the party’s most conser­vat­ive members. At the state level, Repub­lican Governors Rick Perry in Texas and Nathan Deal in Geor­gia fought for and signed laws that led to sharp reduc­tions in the prison popu­la­tion. In Ohio, Governor John Kasich cham­pioned and signed legis­la­tion in 2011 to expand the use of treat­ment in lieu of prison.

In announ­cing the Repub­lican National Commit­tee resol­u­tion to end mass incar­cer­a­tion, RNC member Tom Mechler claimed that “Repub­lic­ans are the ones that have taken the lead on this.”

That’s no idle boast — he’s right. So where are the Demo­crats?

A few Demo­crats have stepped up to cham­pion the cause, such as Senat­ors Dick Durbin, Corey Booker, and Patrick Leahy. But the senior party lead­er­ship — Senator Harry Reid, Repres­ent­at­ive Nancy Pelosi, and DNC chair Debbie Wasser­man Shultz — have largely been mum. Other influ­en­tial party voices, includ­ing Eliza­beth Warren and Chuck Schu­mer, have done the same.

To be sure, Demo­crats may still be haunted by the ghost of Willie Horton and the fear of being branded as “soft on crime.” And some may believe that stoutly main­tain­ing a belief in “law and order” will secure votes.

But times have changed. Now Demo­crats can point to Repub­lic­ans such as Lee, Cornyn, Perry, and Kasich. Even law enforce­ment supports reform. These conser­vat­ive voices now give Demo­crats cover to come out strongly on the issue. And, in the wake of national protests to reform poli­cing, Clin­ton and Sanders have ener­gized parts of the Demo­cratic elect­or­ate — African-Amer­ican communit­ies and white liber­als alike — on the issue.

The consensus to reduce unne­ces­sary impris­on­ment has arrived. But we will never see true reform until Demo­crats provide a solid left flank, so that comprom­ise lands at the center, instead of to the right.

It is time for Demo­crats to offi­cially commit them­selves to the fight to revamp crim­inal justice. When they meet in Phil­adelphia one week after the Repub­lic­ans, their plat­form should express unequi­vocal support for ending the era of mass incar­cer­a­tion. The Demo­crats should openly back trim­ming mandat­ory minimum sentences, redu­cing prison for nonvi­ol­ent crimes, and improv­ing community-police rela­tions. And after all the space that previ­ous Demo­cratic plat­forms have devoted to using federal funds to build prison cells, the 2016 docu­ment should call for federal fund­ing to decrease prison space — a “reverse Crime Bill”of sorts.

Crim­inal justice reform should be a simple step for a party that believes in progress, equal­ity, and inclu­sion. It was the Demo­crats who fought for civil rights in the last century. If the Demo­crats do not raise their voice, history will record that it was the Repub­lic­ans who led the civil-rights struggle in this one.                   

(Photo: Think­stock)