The differences between Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton have grown a lot sharper lately. But when it comes to criminal justice, there’s not much disagreement at all.
In the recent Democratic debate in Milwaukee, for example, Sanders spoke (among other things) of our “broken criminal justice system,” and decried “overpolicing in African-American neighborhoods.” For her part, Clinton said we must end the “era of mass incarceration” and “protect the communities police officers are sworn to protect”—while simultaneously grappling with “systemic racism.” (Each candidate also stressed that, on this topic, they’re in full agreement with the other.)
The belief that we need to transform the way law enforcement and the courts work has become Democratic orthodoxy. But here’s an intriguing twist: At times, several Republican candidates have made similar arguments.
In August 2015, for example, Marco Rubio expressed sympathy with the grievances of Black Lives Matter protesters in an interview with Fox News—and said they’re raising issues that must be confronted.
“African American males—I have one friend in particular who’s been stopped in the last 18 months eight to nine different times,” Rubio said. “Never got a ticket … If that happened to me, I’d be wondering, what’s going on here?”
In that same interview, Rubio suggested keeping nonviolent, first-time offenders out of prison, so they have a chance to live productive lives later on.
John Kasich took a similar approach as governor of Ohio, signing a bill that puts some nonviolent offenders in community facilities so they can keep working, see their families, and (ideally) not re-offend.
“Look, redemption is real, second chances are real,” Kasich said last March, in a videotaped message to the Bipartisan Summit on Criminal Justice Reform. “We not only need to practice that individually, we need to practice that collectively.”
And despite Ted Cruz’s reputation as an arch-conservative, he’s expressed interest in reform, too—particularly in the reduction of mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug offenders.
But after cosponsoring the Smarter Sentencing Act in 2014, Cruz voted against similar legislation last fall, saying it would set some violent offenders free.
Meanwhile, while Ben Carson has questioned mandatory minimums, and Donald Trump has questioned pot prosecutions, neither is inclined to question law enforcement. Trump, in fact, has called police “the most mistreated people in this country.”
That doesn’t mean activists will flock to the Democrats if Trump is the nominee, however.
In 1994, both Sanders and Clinton backed President Bill Clinton’s crime bill, which increased drug prosecutions and packed the prisons. And in 1996, in a now-infamous speech, Hillary Clinton said of so-called “superpredator” criminals, “We have to bring them to heel.”
Yesterday in South Carolina, Clinton was confronted about those remarks. Her response was awkward at best.
In theory, at least, there’s an opening for the eventual Republican nominee on these issues. Right now, however, GOP voters don’t seem inclined to select a candidate who will take advantage.