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September 14, 2007

Lawyer-presidents and future sentencing reforms

Over at Law School Innovation, Anupam Chander has this new post highlighting that "the three leading candidates for President in both parties are all lawyers."  (This recent USA Today article covers similar ground.)  Of course, this factiod has me thinking about which of the lawyer-president-wannabes would be most likely to champion sound sentencing reforms. 

Our last few lawyer-presidents — Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, and Bill Clinton — have hardly had inspiring records on various criminal justice issues, and I have noted some of my gripes with Clinton's sentencing record in some posts linked below.  That said, Rudy Giuliani has called at least one federal guideline sentence "grossly excessive" (when discussing Scooter Libby's original prison term), and Barack Obama has indicated an interest in "expert evidence" concerning sentencing reform (though in comments suggesting he is oblivious to the work of the US Sentencing Commission), and Fred Thompson has recent criminal justice experience (though this comes from pretending to be a DA on Law & Order). 

Sarcastic comments aside, I wonder if any readers have thoughts on how a single-issue sentencing voter ought to sort through the crowded field of presidential candidates.

Some related posts on sentencing politics:

September 14, 2007 at 04:43 PM | Permalink


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I think your problem is less with the Presidents we have had than the mood of the country. The reality is that tough on crime wins votes. Ask Mike Dukakis. If you want our country's sentencing policies to change, you have to change that reality first.

Posted by: William Jockusch | Sep 15, 2007 9:53:54 PM

The reality is that it is the “message” that wins. As a lawyer, I know that if someone declares themselves to be “tough” on crime, I know that they are talking to an audience of non-lawyers and simply disregard what they say. Usually these people have a more comprehensive understanding of the subject, but they know most public forums are not the place for such discussion.

However, it is possible to provide a political message that has appeal to non-lawyers that incorporates a nuanced approach to criminal justice issues. But, depending on the jurisdiction and opponent you might need to dress it up in “tough on crime” rhetoric.

Posted by: S.cotus | Sep 16, 2007 2:04:54 PM

If there exists such a human as a single issue sentencing voter, and I cannot imagine such a person, actually, Dennis Kucinich and Ron Paul appear to me to be the only options promising anything like a dramatic overhaul. This is a 4th tier issue at best, sadly.

I disagree with William that the mood of the country is the same as when Dukakis was nailed with the Willie Horton episode - that was 20 years ago, and the crime rate was more than twice what it is now (1,400 drug related murders in 1989, e.g., compared to about 600 last year).

State polling I've seen indicates the "tuff" attitudes are softening and people are more open to cost-benefit arguments about crime than they were a decade or even five years ago. I have a few theories about why, but bottom line, "tuff" stances don't resonate with voters as strongly as they used to.

Posted by: Gritsforbreakfast | Sep 17, 2007 6:28:16 AM

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