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February 10, 2008

"Where candidates stand on crime, death penalty"

The title of this post is the title of this new article in the San Francisco Chronicle.  Before even reading the article, I already knew that all the 2008 presidential candidates are generally against crime and generally for the death penalty, but the article usefully provides a bit more nuance that its headline. Here are some long snippets from a very notable article:

With the Democratic nomination still up in the air after the Super Tuesday primaries, the evolving stances of Clinton and Obama on crime and punishment offer a point of comparison for voters in upcoming primaries, including Tuesday's votes in Virginia, Maryland and the District of Columbia. Although Clinton and Obama, both lawyers, have some important differences, their positions on two of the most politically sensitive crime issues — the death penalty and gun control — have converged....

The two differ on crime-related issues that have a lower profile but affect many thousands of prisoners, most of them minorities — the disparity between sentences for offenses involving crack and powder cocaine, and the merits of federal mandatory-minimum sentencing laws.  On both, Clinton lines up with the prosecution, Obama with the defense.

Such disagreements scarcely exist on the Republican side. John McCain, Mitt Romney (who dropped out of the race Thursday) and Mike Huckabee are equally fervent in their support of the death penalty, opposition to gun control, allegiance to the war on drugs and abhorrence of liberal judges, while occasionally accusing one another of backsliding.  One note of dissent comes from Huckabee, the former Arkansas governor, who opposes three-strikes sentencing laws, saying they have "created a system that is overrun with people, and the cost is choking us." But the real dissident in the Republican race is Paul, the Texas libertarian, who opposes the death penalty, favors drug decriminalization and thinks the federal government has far too big a presence in law enforcement....

It's true that most crime is prosecuted locally.  But any president can exert a powerful influence on crime policies by backing or blocking legislation on wiretapping, guns, corporate wrongdoing or defendants' rights; by appointing judges, the attorney general, U.S. attorneys, and members of agencies like the U.S. Sentencing Commission; and by deciding whether federal prosecutors should chiefly target gangs, drugs, pornography or securities fraud. 

Crime is seldom a prominent issue in presidential primaries, largely because the front-runners in each party typically take similar positions. But the subject can explode on Democrats in a November election. The prime example was in 1988, when Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis, who had led Republican Vice President George Bush in early opinion polls, came under withering attack for his support of a furlough program that allowed a convicted murderer named William Horton — dubbed "Willie" in campaign ads — to leave prison in 1986 and rape a Maryland woman.

Dukakis was also the last major-party nominee to oppose the death penalty. He was hurt politically when he responded without apparent emotion to a debate question about whether he would favor execution for someone who raped and murdered his wife.  Bill Clinton, by contrast, interrupted his 1992 presidential campaign and flew back to Arkansas for the execution of a brain-damaged killer named Rickey Ray Rector.  As president, Clinton signed a 1994 crime bill that included a major expansion of the federal death penalty; according to the New York Times, first lady Hillary Clinton lobbied fellow Democrats for that provision. Bill Clinton also signed a 1996 law restricting state prisoners' ability to appeal their convictions and sentences in federal court....

The Democrats' clearest differences involve sentencing for drug crimes, including the disparity between terms for crack cocaine offenses, which affect mostly black prisoners, and terms for powder cocaine, which affect mostly whites.  When the Sentencing Commission voted in November to lower sentencing guidelines for crack-related crimes, and bring them closer to sentences for powder cocaine, Obama favored applying the new terms retroactively to current prisoners, while Clinton opposed it, saying the change should affect only future cases.  The commission voted for retroactivity in December, allowing 19,500 federal inmates to ask judges for sentence reductions, about two years in most cases.

Clinton has also questioned Obama's proposal to scrap some of the more than 170 federal mandatory-minimum laws, which require judges to impose specified prison sentences, most commonly for drug crimes.  Noting that the laws mostly affect minorities and have had many critics, including the late Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist, Obama has attacked them as unfair to defendants and unduly restrictive on judges, but he has stopped short of calling for a wholesale repeal.  Instead, he promises to review all mandatory minimums and try to eliminate those he considers too harsh.

UPDATE:  Over at TalkLeft, Jeralyn has this long post providing more perspective on these issues, and she concludes with this assertion:

To say Obama is more progressive on crime issues or that he takes the defense line while Hillary toes the prosecution line, is not accurate. Neither one is particularly progressive or defense oriented.  Their minor differences are just that, minor.

Rather than debate labels here, I would rather concentrate on records.  Throughout his Presidency, Bill Clinton showed to the right on crime to score political points (and this SFC article suggests Hillary Clinton played a key role in these moves). I was so disappointed by Hillary Clinton's recent stance on crack retroactivity because it revealed that she, too, was very ready and seemingly quite willing to sell-out principles (and criminal defendants) as part of a misguided effort to score political points.  As the San Francisco Chronicle spotlights, it likely made a lot of political sense in 1992 for Bill Clinton to try to move the democrats to the right on crime issues.  But, 16 years later, the modern dynamics of crime and politics have changed dramatically, and I think the country now desperately needs leaders who worry more about modern justice realities than about dated political rhetoric.

February 10, 2008 at 01:10 PM | Permalink


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I feel better about my vote every day. Finally a rational policy menu, as opposed to the hysteria the anti-crime movement had produced. As president Obama would no doubt encounter resistance, but these are policies that really need to be reevaluated and the only way to do that is to have someone willing to begin the debate. And the retroactivity issue is an easy one; if the guidelines are wrong then they were wrong.

Posted by: Alec | Feb 11, 2008 12:04:52 AM

Gee, some great choices in 2008 Presidential candidates, John McCain is hard right Hillary Clinton is right and Barack Obama is, well, he talks frequently talks right but there's hope in some quarters that he'll land somewhere else after the election.

Posted by: | Apr 12, 2008 8:28:51 PM

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