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July 29, 2016

Is it lack of conviction, lack of courage, or just lack of cleverness that leads Dems to be so weak on criminal justice reform advocacy?

In this post on Monday, I predicted we would hear a lot more this week about criminal justice reform from leading Democrats during the DNC than we had heard last week from leading Republicans during the RNC.  I suppose that prediction was not entirely mistaken, as both Prez Obama on Wednesday and Prez candidate Clinton on Thursday each had a few lines about criminal justice reform in their speeches.  For those who missed the brief mentions of criminal justice in their two+ hours of speechification, here is what was said:

I suppose I was foolish for thinking and really hoping that Democratic leaders would have much more to say than this relative pablum about criminal justice reform circa 2016. And the deliberative decision to prioritize polite CJ reform pablum over actual CJ reform advocacy prompts the (frustration-filled) question in the title of this post.  Let me briefly unpack what I mean by this question, hoping to generate some serious and sober discussions on this front:

A lack of conviction?:  In light of Prez Bill Clinton's "tough-on-crime" legacy and Prez Obama's milquetoast efforts to reverse course, I am growing ever more convinced that leading Democrats are perhaps just not all that troubled by modern mass incarceration, the aggressive drug war, marijuana prohibition, private prisons, felon disenfranchisement, overcriminalization, inadequate defense funding, wrongful convictions, prosecutorial misconduct or a host of other persistent criminal justice problems that have nothing to do with the hot-button (dog-whistle?) topics of race or guns.

A lack of courage?:  I sincerely want to believe that leading Democrats (as well as leading Republicans and independents) really are troubled by modern mass incarceration, the aggressive drug war, marijuana prohibition, private prisons, felon disenfranchisement, overcriminalization, inadequate defense funding, wrongful convictions, prosecutorial misconduct and a host of other persistent criminal justice problems.  But if leading Dems do want to see real reform in these arenas, why do they lack the courage to encourage serious discussion of serious reforms?  Why thoughout the election season to date has (independent) Bernie Sanders been the only major candidate with the courage to keep talking forcefully about the probems of mass incarceration and to advocate for specific reforms like ending federal marijuana prohibition and the use of private prisons?

A lack of cleverness?:  I am never sure if I am comforted or further depressed when thinking that leading Dems genuinely care about criminal justice reform but ultimately lack the ability to speak about these issues in clever and politically shrwed ways to build on (now bipartisan) political interest in significant reforms.  For example, Prez Obama could have (and I think should have) added to his statement that he has been pleased to see many more "mayors and sheriffs and state's attorneys and state legislators" in red states as well as blue states committed to innovative justice programming seeking to reduce our nation's over-reliance on incarceration.  Similarly, Prez candidate Clinton could have (and I think should have) added to her statement that she would be eager to draw on the work and wisdom of both Republican and Democratic Governors and Attorneys General to identify state-level reforms that have proved most effective at rebuilding needed "trust between law enforcement and the communities they serve."


July 29, 2016 at 11:09 AM | Permalink


Doug, you apparently believe that Hillary Clinton is foolhardy enough to telegraph what Dems in their heart of hearts want to do. I trust that Hillary would love to do an end-to-end reform and will sic the DOJ on numerous jurisdictions to get this done.

Doug, these are the people that believe in race-norming school discipline. They will push under the radar to be nice to criminals.

Posted by: federalist | Jul 29, 2016 2:22:51 PM

The convention had a range of things to cover.

It had to overall show Clinton is a good nominee. Cover economic, foreign policy, military, diversity, guns and more.

Just might be the, sad as it might be for a sentencing law and policy blog, criminal justice reform is not a leading issue here. It is not like criminal issues were ignored. Guns, police relations (more than one police chief talked), importance of focusing on local elections/personnel (from Obama's speech alone) and assume other stuff was touched upon. Like those like Sandy Levinson who wants more concern on structural constitutional issues, perhaps it is sad that more wasn't covered. But, not sure how much lack of "cleverness" etc. is involved here.

Criminal justice reform is simply (other than limited areas such as police relations and guns ... which do have some connections to the things cited but in a somewhat more general way) not a leading issue in this election. Perhaps, like they have did in a Reason interview regarding foreign policy, the Libertarian duo will take advantage.

Posted by: Joe | Jul 29, 2016 3:05:28 PM

"It had to overall show Clinton is a good nominee." Hard to put lipstick on that pig. LOL.

And Doug, don't feel so bad--they did have Michael Brown's mother (who probably was a lousy one, given how her kid turned out) up there buttressing a false narrative. I bet Joe doesn't have a problem with that.

Posted by: federalist | Jul 29, 2016 3:27:49 PM

Speaking as a white convicted felon, it's a status that makes me feel as though I don't really have any "place at the table" as a Democrat. I feel like I will always be seen as without merit. So I am seriously considering voting for Trump, even though I have no particular admiration for what he stands for. Under Trump the main determinant of merit is simply strength. Because of that, I feel (with an admittedly high degree of uncertainty) like the stigma of a criminal record is lessened. If you are strong and you, for whatever reason, are not locked up in the jail, in Trumpland you will be respected.

Posted by: felon | Jul 29, 2016 3:34:50 PM

Democrats supported various things that helped convicted felons including return of voting rights et. al.

Don't recall a race test to these things, "felon."

Posted by: Joe | Jul 29, 2016 4:34:32 PM


I'd prefer that Democrats focus on the mistakes that were made that led to these appalling crimes.

Posted by: federalist | Jul 29, 2016 5:40:57 PM

Joe yes they did and Republicans did things to help white males, which I also am and Trump in particular seems like he will help not-so-nice white males, and I can't claim to be the nicest guy although I try

Posted by: felon | Jul 29, 2016 7:57:23 PM

As a layperson with an interest in civil liberties, I gave up on the Democratic Party the moment President Obama, a supposed constitutional scholar, signed the International Megan's Law bill. The party may talk the talk about fairness and giving people a second chance, but it clearly doesn't walk the walk. Before IML, I had always registered as a Democrat but am now an independent. And I will be voting for Gary Johnson in November.

Posted by: FormerDem | Jul 30, 2016 3:57:02 PM

So, you will skip over the various ways they HAVE "walked the walk" but found something (there always is something) that turns you off. Not to worry. Republicans do the same selective thing.

Posted by: Joe | Jul 30, 2016 5:12:00 PM

"Joe yes they did and Republicans did things to help white males, which I also am and Trump in particular seems like he will help not-so-nice white males, and I can't claim to be the nicest guy although I try."

Both parties, in various ways, did things "to help white males." Democrats in various ways helped "white males" who are "not-so-nice" in various ways. This includes those who are convicted of a crime. Trump is not just concerned about "strength." If anything, he wants people who are willing to bow down to him. That's more a sign of weakness. He will likely go along with Republican policies that in various respects will harm ex-felons.

OTOH, to be honest, not sure how serious to take your comment. I'll take it on face value.

Posted by: Joe | Jul 30, 2016 5:17:43 PM

Candidates at this juncture arent going to mention criminal reform. It doesnt serve their main goal of getting elected. After January you may here of some soft words uttered at the end of a small speech about immigration and gun control.

Clinton is going to ban military style rifles and clips > 10 rounds. This is why in the midwest, along with Obamas current spending policies (hers are even bigger) she isnt going to get ghe votes. Nobody likes or feels Trump is a good candidate, just feel he is the lesser in their small world.

Clinton has more experience and is ready day one to push her dream plans. Nobody trusts Monica Lewinskis ex boy friends wife as President. I wonder what brand cigar she prefers. As gross as thus statement us, it does indicate values and truth from the past.
Are you telling me you want this woman to lead our country or Trump.

We need a do over, my neighbors dog is predictable and has a similar track record of the Clintons and Trump. Hes a mutt and doesnt try to be anything else, far from our candidates.

Major issues: Debt us what 18-19 trillion at least, savings accts pay what .02% interest, cds are .8%, letting foreingers bleed our socoal systems and ship in drugs, kill our people and remain here to allow their kids to be naturaled citizens.

The issues arenot: free cell ohones, disability to all, free college tuition, raise our taxes says one, other sats no lower our taxes but eliminate tax on social security.

No thought process behing any of these half baked election quick slogans. America is in trouble and its not going to get addressed. Its going to be just like when the banks blewup a while back. Too kate with too little, but hey at least we peddaled our do nothing policies. Oh yes I forgot, lets spend anither 4 trs and repeal ObamaCare. Fasten your financial seat belts cause we are in for sled ride with no lift back to the top.

Govt spent 80 billion/month buying bonds to shore up interest rate and stock market. f
For several yrs. Hm anybody care to comment on that one?

Posted by: MidWestGuy | Jul 30, 2016 11:04:00 PM

"And I will be voting for Gary Johnson in November."

Well that's a waste of your vote.

Joe: I wouldn't take me too seriously

Posted by: felon | Jul 31, 2016 2:01:43 PM

"I trust that Hillary would love to do an end-to-end reform and will sic the DOJ on numerous jurisdictions to get this done."

"Clinton is going to ban military style rifles and clips > 10 rounds"

FWIW, if Hillary Clinton actually said she'd do what her conservative critics insist is her secret agenda, there would have been no Bernie Sanders insurgency. The reason D support is tepid is that, in fact, she WON'T do that stuff.

And to Doug's tri-partite question: These are not mutually exclusive. My answer is D) All of the above.

Posted by: Gritsforbreakfast | Aug 1, 2016 8:43:52 AM

"D support is tepid"

Was it tepid for Obama too? He didn't do all that "stuff" either. And, we knew it.

Bernie's candidacy was not driven by criminal justice issues from what I can tell. It was more economic in nature though he took on a bit of that.

Posted by: Joe | Aug 1, 2016 9:47:48 AM

I'm afraid I've become too cynical. It's difficult for me to see any purity or idealism in politics today. Looking for the money behind any legislation or policy can be a devastating eye opener. Would anyone give money to some of these candidates if they didn't think the candidate would promote their financial well being?

I sometimes think that if the government were deprived of endless funds to "fix" a perceived danger, injustice, inequity, or other problem, candidates would actually have to run without cash and the need to throw red meat to their tribe.

If candidates make people afraid they can rush in to fix the problem with a contract to a supporter or a group of public employees. I always have hope, but not with these candidates. Fewer career politicians and fewer government policy experts working with lobbyists may be a fine start for real reform.

Posted by: beth | Aug 1, 2016 4:13:39 PM

Here is the perfect example of why mass incarceration doesn't work and why we need to do something as a nation to address reforming our criminal justice system...Lenny Singleton made the front page of The New York Times. You can read the story here.... http://nyti.ms/29ik8sY

Lenny's case is possibly one of the worst in the country illustrating sentencing disparity. Lenny has served almost 21 years, more time than rapists, child molesters, and murderers, for a series of "grab & dash" robberies to fund his crack addiction, all committed in a one week period in which he did not physically injure anyone, stealing less than $550, and no one filed as a "victim". His was a first time felon with a college degree and who had served in our Navy before his addiction to crack cocaine. During his entire time in prison, he has not received a single infraction for anything -- very rare for lifers who have no reason to be the best person they can be. He is deserving of a second chance.

Please get involved by signing Lenny's petition at www.justice4lenny.org, share his story, and get your copy of his book, "Love Conquers All" -- a book he co-authored to help others headed down the same path. It is time Lenny comes home.

Posted by: Vandy Singleton | Aug 2, 2016 1:43:52 PM

Only the recognition of the real problem (felonism) will lead to solutions. Felonism is the government approved, systemic oppression of people suspected or convicted of a felony. Our culture now seems to believe that those who are suspected or charged with a crime are pretty much in the same boat that Blacks were relegated to during slavery. People who love individuals in this metaphorical boat are also worthy of condemnation according to today’s social trend. No political party can resolve judicial, prison, or education reform without identifying and eliminating felonism. Hell, politicians are major players in creating this debacle. What would have happened if the Civil Rights Movement had ignored racism in the 60’ & 70’s? Nothing! And that is what will happen now if we ignore the root cause of today’s social unrest. I know this to be true because I saw felonism in our schools before retiring and I have experienced it first hand as the result of marrying a man with a record.

Posted by: Linda Polk | Aug 2, 2016 4:23:30 PM

The creation of Incarceration Nation was a bi-partisan project, both federally and in the states. There may have been some random legislators along the way who didn't see the point, but the vast majority wanted Incarceration Nation. The Democrats like to appear at least willing to shrink it, but they have no intention of doing so.

Posted by: Fred | Aug 3, 2016 8:52:39 PM

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