July 19, 2016
"Two Parties, Two Platforms on Criminal Justice: The Republicans nod to reforms, then take a sharp right turn."
The title of this post is the title of this timely new piece by Maurice Chammah, which includes a blow-by-blow accounting of how the party platforms have changed on criminal justice issues since 2012. Here is how the piece sets up the comparative look at how time changes platforms:
The 2016 Republican and Democratic party platforms — the GOP’s approved Monday night, the Democrats’ still in draft form — swing hard to the right and left, with Republicans amplifying their traditional positions against gay marriage, abortion, transgender rights, and immigration, and Democrats calling for expanded public healthcare and higher education, and a $15 minimum wage. Platforms are not binding on candidates, but they distill a consensus of the forces within the party at this point in history. That’s particularly clear this year on the subjects of crime and punishment.
In the new Democratic party platform, the fingerprints of the Black Lives Matter movement and Bernie Sanders are apparent, in calls for independent investigations of police-involved shootings, more body cameras, and training in de-escalation. There is a declaration that “states that want to decriminalize marijuana should be able to do so.” There is also a call for the end of the death penalty, something President Obama and Hillary Clinton have not endorsed. Parts of the Democratic draft platform clearly repudiate the tough language their party embraced a generation ago, when their current candidate’s husband was president. The mother of Sandra Bland, who died at a Texas jail last year and became a symbol of the Black Lives Matter movement, is scheduled to speak at their convention next week in Philadelphia.
The Republican document reflects recent tensions in conservative circles. It includes the language of conservatives who call for reducing incarceration — influential Republican patrons like the Koch brothers, politicians like Rick Perry, Rand Paul and Newt Gingrich — but it also includes plenty of traditional invocations of law and order. An ambitious bipartisan sentencing reform effort in Congress, which Sen. Ted Cruz supported and then abandoned, has been whittled down and allowed to languish. And it was opponents of that bill including Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas and Milwaukee Sheriff David Clarke (who regularly attacks the "myths" of justice reform) who were in the lineup Monday night in Cleveland, where the evening’s theme was “Make America Safe Again.” It was those figures who dominated the party’s televised presentation.
To feel the tension, consider the 2016 passage on mandatory minimum sentences, which says such sentences served a good purpose and should only be rolled back sparingly: "In the past, judicial discretion about sentences led to serious mistakes concerning dangerous criminals. Mandatory minimum sentencing became an important tool for keeping them off the streets. Modifications to it should be targeted toward particular categories, especially nonviolent offenders and persons with drug, alcohol, or mental health issues, and should require disclosure by the courts of any judicial departure from the State’s sentencing requirements."
Conservative criminal justice reformers, who have gathered under the banner of “Right on Crime,” had gotten brief nods to rehabilitation and non-prison sentences for drug crimes into their 2008 and 2012 platforms. An April 2016 resolution they promoted, which was adopted by the Republican National Committee, points out that despite a massive growth in incarceration, many who are released from prison commit new crimes, meaning prisons might not be the best investment in public safety. They added language acknowledging the success of conservative lawmakers in traditionally red states to reduce incarceration and save money. “90% of the prisoners in this country are not federal,” says Ken Cuccinelli, the former attorney general of Virginia, “so it’s meaningful to talk about the experimentation and successes in the states.”
The rift in conservative circles was apparent when the 112 members of the full platform committee edited the document last week in Cleveland. At one point, April Newland, a delegate from the Virgin Islands, proposed adding a line supporting a national registry of child murderers, which had been in the 2012 platform. She described how her brother’s three and five year-old children were murdered by a man who went on to be released from prison, moved near a school, and molested more victims. Other delegates pushed back. “A federal mandate doesn’t work,” Maryland delegate JoeyLynn Hough said. “So, I’m sorry about your family, but I don’t think this is the answer.”
The committee also added support for “mens rea” reform, an effort to force prosecutors to prove a defendant intended to commit a crime, as well as strong language supporting drug treatment programs, particularly for first-time offenders. In other areas, the new platform’s language took a different tack, condemning the Supreme Court for limiting use of the death penalty, and Attorney General Loretta Lynch for her “present campaign of harassment against police forces around the country.”
At one of the hearings, delegate Giovanni Cicione, an attorney from Rhode Island, proposed language encouraging lawmakers to “fairly assess the social and economic costs of the failure of drug prohibition, and recognize that our states are sending a clear signal that a new approach is long overdue.”
“We have created with drug prohibition a multi-billion dollar underground economy, and a generation of Al Capones,” Cicione told the other delegates. “And if you want to respond to the Black Lives Matter protesters, if you want to respond to the families of those police officers who died in Dallas, if you want to respond to the families of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile... we can’t answer these questions without explaining how we demean and weaken law enforcement by forcing them to enforce unworkable laws.”
He admits he may have gone overboard in bringing up Black Lives Matter, and his suggestion failed. North Carolina delegate Ron Rabin worried his state “could be regionally surrounded by states where the use of drugs is legal and they come into our state to harass.” Cicione didn’t expect to win, but he did notice that the the average ages of the yes and no votes were “separated by 40 years,” which to him signalled that reformers will eventually get their way. “Those of us who grew up in a more tolerant environment about drugs are less afraid of them,” he said.
July 19, 2016 at 09:28 AM | Permalink