GOP Platform Calls for an End to the "Over-Criminalization of Behavior and the Over-Federalization of Offenses"


Stop the presses: The tough-on-crime GOP says there are too many laws! But also that there are not enough laws. The plank, titled "Justice for All: Safe Neighborhoods and Prison Reform," is a mixed bag, really.

The standout (as in "good") section comes at the very end, and reads as follows:

The resources of the federal government's law enforcement and judicial systems have been strained by two unfortunate expansions: the over-criminalization of behavior and the over-federalization of offenses. The number of criminal offenses in the U.S. Code increased from 3,000 in the early 1980s to over 4,450 by 2008. Federal criminal law should focus on acts by federal employees or acts committed on federal property – and leave the rest to the States. Then Congress should withdraw from federal departments and agencies the power to criminalize behavior, a practice which, according to the Congressional Research Service, has created "tens of thousands" of criminal offenses. No one other than an elected representative should have the authority to define a criminal act and set criminal penalties. In the same way, Congress should reconsider the extent to which it has federalized offenses traditionally handled on the State or local level.

An optimist might read that last sentence as applying to the war on drugs or the war on raw milk. A cynic might read it as regarding only crimes rich white people commit. What we know is that Mitt Romney has said he will (continue) cracking down on medical pot, and that Paul Ryan refuses to talk about drugs, only bow hunting and Medicare. So it's tough to say what the GOP means by the above section.

The rest of the plank is the standard mix of tough- and smart-on-crime talking points, with an extra measure of "We're tougher than them dang dirty Democrats," even though the GOP's 2012 criminal justice plank reads quite similar to the Democrats' 2008 plank of the same:

Liberals do not understand this simple axiom: criminals behind bars cannot harm the general public. To that end, we support mandatory prison sentencing for gang crimes, violent or sexual offenses against children, repeat drug dealers, rape, robbery and murder. We support a national registry for convicted child murderers. We oppose parole for dangerous or repeat felons. Courts should have the option of imposing the death penalty in capital murder cases.

Republicans saying that "liberals" don't understand the need for putting people in cages is like a tabby cat claiming that calicos are not good at burying their own shit. Truth is Obama has done a great job of keeping people in prison. He's pardoned fewer people than George W. Bush did at this point in his first term (by July 2004, Bush had pardonned 19 people; Obama has pardoned 16), and the U.S. has the largest prison population on the planet–both in absolute numbers and relative to its population.

Both parties, in other words, are clearly doing their part to make America less free. (Dissonant aside: Texas used to have the second highest prison population in the country. Now it has the fourth highest. Looks like Texan conservatives don't understand that "simple axiom" either.)

The rest of the GOP's law and order plank looks pretty similar to what the Democrats rolled out in 2008:

On victims rights:

GOP 2012: We call on the States to make it a bipartisan priority to protect the rights of crime victims, who should also be assured of access to social and legal services; and we call on the Congress to make the federal courts a model in this regard for the rest of the country.

Democrats 2008: We support the rights of victims to be respected, to be heard, and to be compensated.

On Drug Courts:

GOP 2012: We endorse State and local initiatives that are trying new approaches to curbing drug abuse and diverting first-time offenders to rehabilitation.

Democrats 2008: We will restorefunding for the Byrne Justice Assistance Grant Program and expand the use of drug courts andrehabilitation programs for first-time, non-violent drug offenders.

On the death penalty:

GOP 2012:  Courts should have the option of imposing the death penalty in capital murder cases.

Democrats 2008: We believe that the death penalty must not be arbitrary.

Now much difference, is there?

The ugliest aspect of this plank is the explicit endorsement of mandatory sentencing: "Our national experience over the last several decades has shown that citizen vigilance, tough but fair prosecutors, meaningful sentences, protection of victims' rights, and limits on judicial discretion can preserve public safety by keeping criminals off the streets." It's difficult to square that section with the competing plea for more state-level autonomy.