Hillary Rodham Clinton might have preferred to use her first big policy announcement to discuss confronting stagnant middle-class wages, or runaway higher-education costs, or even big money in politics. Instead, she found herself Wednesday talking about body cameras on cops and lengthy prison terms.
The social unrest in Ferguson, Mo., and Baltimore, unleashed by the deaths of African Americans and accusations of police abuse, has put the nation’s flawed criminal justice system at the center of the nascent presidential race. Candidates are in a scramble to draw up their visions for fixing it.
“We have to come to terms with some hard truths about race and justice in America,” Clinton said in a speech Wednesday in New York, where she announced a plan to equip every street cop with a body camera and roll back the country’s harsh sentencing laws.
It was not just the rioting in Baltimore that moved the criminal justice issue to the top of the agenda this week. As campaigns get underway, candidates find themselves repeatedly confronted with concerns from voters about drug abuse in their communities and what they see as a shortsighted law enforcement approach to dealing with it.
Criminal justice is politically tricky territory for any candidate, but particularly for Clinton. When she was first lady, playing a key role in advising the White House on policy, her husband imposed some of the nation’s toughest sentencing laws. As Clinton talked Wednesday about the increase in incarcerations over the last 20 to 30 years, she left unmentioned how Bill Clinton’s administration contributed to that trend.
Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, a Republican running for president himself, quickly pointed that out. He accused Clinton of “an attempt to undo some of Bill Clinton’s work — the same work she cheerfully supported as first lady.”
But what was even more notable about his response to Clinton’s plan was that he did not accuse her of misguided liberalism that would lead to a surge of dangerous criminals on the street, a charge Republicans have often leveled against reform proposals in the past.
Paul instead accused Clinton of stealing his ideas. The senator is taking a lead on bipartisan sentencing reform on Capitol Hill, pushing for the kind of changes that Clinton mapped out Wednesday.
The libertarian is not alone. As governors, Republicans Jeb Bush and Rick Perry were at the forefront of their states’ efforts to shift nonviolent offenders out of prison cells and into drug treatment programs. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), perhaps the most conservative candidate in the race, has been railing against “over-criminalization” and “harsh mandatory minimum sentences.”
“There has been a seismic shift in criminal justice politics,” said Inimai M. Chettiar, a program director at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law. “People who once based their campaigns on being the most punitive are now basing their campaigns on having the best ideas to reduce mass incarceration.”
The steep drop in crime rates over the last several years, Chettiar said, “has allowed people to think about these issues more rationally.” The events in Baltimore and Ferguson have moved that evolution in thinking into the campaign spotlight.
In a book of essays the Brennan Center released Tuesday, several of the candidates and likely candidates lay out plans to change the system. Wisconsin’s Republican Gov. Scott Walker stood out for supporting existing penalties and suggesting that maybe some should be toughened.
Others argue for more humane treatment of offenders. Perry boasts that criminal justice in Texas is “no longer driven solely by fear, but by a commitment to true justice and compassion for those shackled by the chains of addiction.”
New Jersey’s Republican Gov. Chris Christie advocates treating drug offenders instead of locking them up.
Paul writes, “The escalation of the militarization of America’s police force has become increasingly alarming.”
And Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) laments “the overreaching criminal laws and overstretched prison resources we have today.”
Republican governors took the lead in sentencing reform as they sought ways to gain control of spending. The mandatory minimum prison terms enacted in the 1980s and 1990s began to suck up alarming amounts of taxpayer dollars, forcing Republican administrations to cut other programs.
Several prominent conservatives have since rallied around sentencing reform, including the Koch brothers — billionaires who finance right-wing causes and candidates — and former GOP House Speaker Newt Gingrich. The effort has been embodied in a think tank that conservatives organized in 2010 called Right on Crime, which pushes lawmakers to find alternative punishments for nonviolent offenders.
“Prisons were starting to break the bank in many of these states,” said Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, an advocacy group. “But there is also a growing sense of moral revulsion on the human level, and the Christian level, at the results of these policies. It is dawning on people, even Republicans, who say they believe in freedom but who are living in the country with the highest incarceration rate in the world.”
Whether the issue of injustice in the way punishment is meted out stays at the forefront of the campaign remains to be seen. Voters demand that it be dealt with during times like this week’s rioting in Baltimore, but their interest tends to wane quickly, polls show.
Clinton gave advocates hope that won’t be the case this time: On Wednesday she linked the issue to the country’s economic challenges, which will be at the core of her campaign.
“These challenges are all woven together,” she said. “And they all must be tackled together.”