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January 28, 2007

Clinton and Obama, crime and punishment

This intriguing New York Times front-page article on Barack Obama's time at Harvard Law School (my alma mater) got me to thinking about how the two front-runners for the Democratic presidential nomination might approach crime and punishment issues.  To my knowledge, neither Hillary Clinton nor Barack Obama has spoken directly and specifically on many crime and punishment issues (and I could not find much on their presidential sites here and here).  But there are plenty of back stories to consider:

  • For Hillary, of course, it is impossible not to look back on the record of her husband's presidency.  Crime in America dropped throughout Bill Clinton's presidency, but prison populations and the use of the death penalty expanded dramatically.  As President, Bill Clinton supported and signed legislation that increased the severity of federal and state sentencing terms, broadened the applicability of the federal death penalty, and sharply restricted habeas corpus rights for prisoners.  It is unclear whether Hillary will seek to actively show off her toughness on crime (as Bill did), but I suspect she is one of many Democrats who have come to believe — mistakenly in my view — that political success depends on being perceived as extra "tough on crime."
  • For Barack, of course, it is impossible not to look at this issue through the lens of race.  Though many seem eager to look past the inevitable racial dynamics of crime and punishment in America, I strongly believe (as suggested here and here and here) that these issues run very deep.  Especially if (when?) Barack is asked questions about hot-button issues like crack/powder sentencing disparity or the death penalty or racial profiling, his skin color will all but ensure that his answers get extra scrutiny.

Meanwhile, while everyone gear up for next year's primaries, there will likely be some notable crime and punishment debates in Congress.  This recent NY Times article predicted hearings on federal mandatory minimum sentencing terms and on the crack/powder disparity.  Also, there will surely be a new round of federal sentencing debate after the Supreme Court's decision Claiborne and Rita in June. 

Will either Senator Clinton or Senator Obama be a leader in crime and punishment debates in the Senate this year?  Or, as I tentatively predict, will they both avoid discussing crime and punishment issues for a long as possible?  (Notably, neither Hillary or Barack signed the peculiar Senators' amicus brief in Claiborne and Rita. I wonder if they were asked?)

January 28, 2007 at 10:55 AM | Permalink

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Comments

The racial dynamics of crime and punishment in America are very complicated. What we usually see is a morality play. For example, we often hear about the "all white jury", but never, with the exception of a WaPo article about a decade ago, about black jury nullification. We were regaled with intonations about slavery in the South in the early coverage of the Duke Lacrosse case, but with no pointing out that non-Hispanic white on black rape is vanishingly rare. And, I might add, one almost never sees a racial motivation assigned to a black on white rape case--in fact, the press and prosecutors often go out of their way to play down the issue (e.g., the Carr brothers case in Wichita). Or for another example, a few years back, WaPo ran an article about a cop who would coerce sexual favors from motorists. It was plainly clear that the black cop targeted white women, yet there was no mention of that fact in the WaPo write-up.

The point, of course, is not to get into a racial scorecard, as that, in my view, is plainly counterproductive and detracts from the fact that we need to deal with criminals, particularly violent ones, black and white. But if people are going to look at the racial aspects of the justice system, one cannot do so from a one-sided perspective.

Somehow I doubt that Barack Obama is going to deal with any of them in depth. Barack Obama has said nothing about the racial violence many blacks face in LA. Barack Obama, in my view, will mouth platitudes about the criminal justice system and move on.

I have a question for all: a few weeks ago a young white couple in Knoxville was carjacked and kidnapped allegedly by a some violent black felons. The story of the violence that the victims suffered is truly appalling. Do people here think that race had nothing to do with the violence and sexual assaults suffered by the dead woman over some period of time?

Posted by: | Jan 28, 2007 3:37:59 PM

It appears that as a state senator, Obama was willing to put his reputation and political future on the line in order to successfully advocate for two controversial, progressive criminal justice laws. From an old New Yorker article: "In Springfield, Obama led a campaign for death-penalty reforms that resulted in unprecedented legislation, requiring the police to videotape all interrogations in cases involving capital crimes. Jan Schakowsky, a liberal Democratic congresswoman who represents Evanston and parts of north Chicago, told me that she thought the reforms were terrific but that, statewide, such things would never be popular, and that Obama was doing himself no favors politically by championing them. Similarly, Obama recently co-sponsored landmark legislation to curb racial profiling—not a popular issue outside minority communities, and not, therefore, a smart move for a man running for the U.S. Senate."

http://www.newyorker.com/fact/content/articles/040531fa_fact1?040531fa_fact1

Posted by: michlawstudent | Jan 28, 2007 4:39:58 PM

Michlawstudent, there was kind of a perfect storm here in Illinois, given a bunch of pretty bad cases of police/prosecutorial misconduct.

Somehow I doubt Obama is going to make criminal law a big issue in his campaign.

Posted by: federalist | Jan 28, 2007 5:44:12 PM

Re: Clinton vs. Obama on the death penalty

Obama seems a reticent supporter of executions. Clinton, as on most issues, seems to be a chameleon.

Running for U.S. Senate, Obama said he favored the death penalty for only the most heinous of murders, such as serial killing. But Obama qualified his stance, saying that his support eroded further when looking at how the death penalty "is currently administered in this country." All three candidates agreed that the capital punishment system should be overhauled. ICADP.

Sen. Kucinich's website labels Obama, Clinton, and Edwards pro-death penalty, to varying degrees. Obama andClinton both voted to prevent funds from being available to assist countries that refuse to extradite individuals to the US because of the moral objections of those countries to the death penalty. "Apparently, this is one of Obama's shifting positions." Bill Richardson, from all appearances already an also-ran this cycle, had the worst record according to Kucinich (which he does).

Amy Goodman reported in summer'04 that Obama "was involved very intimately in drafting and passing legislation that requires the video taping of police interrogations and confessions in all capital cases. And he also was one of the co-sponsors of this very comprehensive reform or the death penalty system in Illinois, which many people say may trigger the retreat on the death penalty in many other states."

In 1998, Obama supported policies to implement penalties other than incarceration for certain non-violent offenders, increase state funds for programs which rehabilitate and educate inmates during and after their prison sentences, and provide funding for military-style "boot camps" for first-time juvenile felons.

This quote from Clinton in 1994 shows her stance on general criminal law issues clearly: "We need more police, we need more and tougher prison sentences for repeat offenders. The three strikes and you’re out for violent offenders has to be part of the plan. We need more prisons to keep violent offenders for as long as it takes to keep them off the streets."

OTOH, Clinton sponsored the federal Innocence Protection Act, allowing federal funding for DNA testing of evidence used in capital cases.

I wasn't able to find a good quote of her stance on executions per se. The Village Voice, though, notes her "unbending" support. But hey, just lick your finger, put it in the air, and feel the breeze - that's where Hillary will blow.

By the way, Bill Clinton, while campaigning for President, flew back to Arkansas to witness the execution of a mentally retarded man whom he had denied clemency, Rickey Ray Rector, a 40-year-old black man convicted of killing a black police officer. After shooting the cop, Rector shot himself in the head and damaged his brain. On the way out of the death cell, the inmate was asked if he wanted to finish his pie. He said he'd finish it when he came back.

Posted by: rothmatisseko | Jan 28, 2007 5:49:41 PM

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