Yesterday the Brennan Center for Justice published an essay collection that highlights both the emerging bipartisan consensus in favor of criminal justice reform and the vacuousness of some politicians who claim to support that cause. The book, titled Solutions: American Leaders Speak Out on Criminal Justice, features worthy and substantive contributions from, among others, Sens. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), Cory Booker (D-N.J.), and Ted Cruz (R-Texas), not to mention nonpoliticians such as UCLA criminologist Mark Kleiman and Marc Levin, founder of Right on Crime. Even New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who is not exactly thoughtful on the subject of, say, marijuana legalization, has some interesting things to say about bail reform. And then there are former President Bill Clinton, Vice President Joe Biden, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who either support policies that contribute to overincarceration and excessive punishment, fail to acknowledge their past support for such policies, or have nothing specific to say about how to correct those policies.
As president, Bill Clinton helped create a situation in which, as then-Attorney General Eric Holder put it in 2013, "too many Americans go to too many prisons for far too long, and for no truly good law enforcement reason." The Clinton administration bragged about supporting "tougher penalties" (including a federal "three strikes" law and longer sentences for meth-related crimes), building more prisons, opposing parole, putting more cops on the street, implementing "a comprehensive anti-drug strategy," and expanding the federal death penalty. This is the full extent of the mea culpa that Clinton offers in the preface to the Brennan Center's book:
By 1994, violent crime had tripled in years. Our communities were under assault. We acted to address a genuine national crisis. But much has changed since then. It's time to take a clear-eyed look at what worked, what didn't, and what produced unintended, long-lasting consequences.
So many of these laws worked well, especially those that put more police on the streets. But too many laws were overly broad instead of appropriately tailored.
Similarly, Biden, who as a senator helped produce those laws—including the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, which Wikipedia calls "the largest crime bill in the history of the United States" and Biden calls "the 1994 Biden Crime Bill"—is in no mood to apologize. Instead Biden uses the book's lead essay to argue that spending "a lot of money" to hire "a lot of cops" would improve relations between police and the communities they serve. At least Biden, who used to be a big fan of mandatory minimums and wrote the bill that gave us a "drug czar," has the good taste not to mention the war on drugs.
Walker and Rubio, both presidential contenders, do mention the war on drugs, which has been a major contributor to overincarceration. They are for it.
Walker, who wants to test people who apply for unemployment benefits, Medicaid, or food subsidies to make sure they are not illegal drug users, describes that policy as "proactively identifying and targeting barriers that prevent people from moving from government dependence to true independence and personal success." He says "drug testing at critical junctures…provides an opportunity for intervention at the earliest possible stages and for treatment as well as job training for those suffering from drug addiction." What about occasional pot smokers who, unlike moderate drinkers or even raging alcoholics, would be automatically denied government benefits and turned down for jobs under the policies Walker favors? Like all orthodox drug warriors, Walker pretends such drug users do not exist.
To his credit, Rubio criticizes "overcriminalization" (as do several other contributors), but his critique does not extend to nonviolent offenses involving the production, possession, or distribution of arbitrarily proscribed intoxicants. "When we consider changing the sentences we impose for drug laws," he writes, "we must be mindful of the great successes we have had in restoring law and order to America's cities since the 1980s drug epidemic destroyed lives, families, and entire neighborhoods. I personally believe that legalizing drugs would be a great mistake and that any reductions in sentences for drug crimes should be made with great care."
Hillary Clinton does not caution legislators against reducing drug penalties. To the contrary, she notes that as a senator she supported shorter crack sentences (as did almost every member of Congress by the time a bill was enacted in 2010). But unlike Paul, Booker, and Cruz, who describe actual pieces of legislation they have either introduced or cosponsored, Clinton is decidedly vague about what reforms should come next.
Clinton wants us to know "it is possible to reduce crime without relying on unnecessary force or excessive incarceration," which may sound wise but is actually a tautology. Instead of unnecessary force or excessive incarceration, she suggests, "we can invest in what works," such as "putting more officers on the streets." Clinton, her husband, and Joe Biden all seem to agree that you can never have too many cops. She also mentions "tough but fair reforms of probation and drug diversion programs," along with more money for "specialized drug courts and juvenile programs." That's about as specific as she gets.
Clinton fills out the essay with platitudes and self-aggrandizing references to Robert Kennedy and "my friend" Nelson Mandela. She also name-checks "Dr. King." Possibly all three of these men have something to do with criminal justice reform, but if so Clinton never bothers to elucidate the connections. It is sad that the Democratic Party's presumptive presidential nominee would offer such a shallow discussion of a subject on which Democrats are supposed to be more enlightened than Republicans. By contrast, three less prominent Democrats—Booker, former Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley, and former Virginia senator Jim Webb—contributed essays that are actually worth reading.
Clinton's essay is especially embarrassing compared to Ted Cruz's. Although Cruz is not as passionate, active, or ambitious on criminal justice reform as Rand Paul is, his essay includes succinct and informed discussions of the bloated federal criminal code, the leverage that mandatory minimums give prosecutors, and the virtual disappearance of trial by jury in criminal cases, along with specific reforms to address these problems. Democrats who think Hillary Clinton is savvier or smarter than Cruz may reconsider after reading these essays side by side.