Paul and Cruz Are Running to Clinton's Left on Sentencing Reform

The presumptive Democratic nominee wants to do something about mandatory minimums but won't say what.


Columbia University

In its story on the repeal of Nebraska's death penalty, The New York Times notes that "liberals and conservatives have been finding common ground on a range of criminal justice issues in Washington and around the country." One example it cites: "On the presidential trail, Hillary Rodham Clinton and Senators Ted Cruz and Rand Paul have all called for easing mandatory minimum sentences." That is literally true, but the implied equivalence is misleading, since the two Republicans are advocating specific reforms, while Clinton has not ventured beyond vague generalities. Here is what Clinton says about mandatory minimums in her contribution to an essay collection published by the Brennan Center for Justice on April 27:

Measures that I and others have championed to reform arbitrary mandatory minimum sentences, curb racial pro?ling, and restore voting rights for ex-offenders are long overdue.

Here is what she said about the subject in a speech at Columbia University two days later:

There are other measures that I and so many others have championed to reform arbitrary mandatory minimum sentences are long overdue [sic].

Although Clinton refers to "measures," she cites just one: the Drug Sentencing Reform and Cocaine Kingpin Trafficking Act of 2007, which she cosponsored six months after it was introduced. That bill, which would have eliminated the sentencing disparity between crack cocaine and cocaine powder, did not go anywhere. Three years later, Congress almost unanimously approved a law that reduced crack penalties, although they are still more severe than the penalties for powder. If you combine Clinton's talk about reform with her end note referring to the 2007 bill, you might surmise that she thinks the smoked and snorted forms of cocaine should be treated the same. But as far as I know she has not said that explicitly or endorsed any other specific change in sentencing.

By contrast, Paul on Cruz are both on record as supporting substantial sentencing reforms, including, in Paul's case, effectively abolishing mandatory minimums. "I am here to ask that we begin today the end of mandatory minimum sentencing," Paul said at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing in 2013. On Bill Maher's HBO show last fall, Paul declared, "I want to end the war on drugs because it's wrong for everybody, but particularly because poor people are caught up in this, and their lives are ruined by it." I have never heard Clinton take a position halfway as bold as those, and I doubt I ever will.

It is pretty striking when self-identified conservatives seeking the Republican presidential nomination are more credible on criminal justice reform than the presumptive Democratic nominee. Paul in particular is not only bolder than Clinton on this issue, which is traditionally identified with left-leaning Democrats, but more passionate as well. The Times tends to gloss over these counterintuitive differences, leaving readers the impression that Republicans like Paul and Cruz are coming around to a position that Democrats like Clinton have long endorsed, which is pretty much the opposite of the truth.