When Will Criminal Justice Reform Take Center Stage at a GOP Debate?

Don't let the Left own this issue. They've been terrible.


Relevant current issue
Credit: OregonDOT / photo on flickr

Sen. Rand Paul spoke the least of any candidate at last night's GOP debate, Robby Soave noted. That may have partly been because one of Paul's pet issues barely had any presence at last night's debate. Criminal justice reform was barely touched upon last night, only in the context of police abuse and minorities, and the questions were directed to Gov. Scott Walker (who called it a training issue) and Ben Carson (who didn't like people making it all about race). Paul was left having to press his own credibility in his closing statement, mentioning visiting cities like Baltimore and Ferguson, Missouri, in the wake of controversial police-related incidents

Chalk it up to it being an early debate with some high-profile stories (Iran and abortion) dominating the headlines right now. It is nevertheless disappointing to see how little impact these issues had in the debate given that it's been a consistent political—and more importantly, bipartisan—focus of discussion.

On a federal level, three criminal reform issues would be great subjects to tackle in the Republican debates:

  • Federal Sentencing Reform: Paul has the obvious advantage here as a sponsor of the Justice Safety Valve Act, which would abolish federal mandatory minimums for federal crimes. He has won praise from President Barack Obama for his efforts, so it would be interesting if a candidate used that against him, the way Paul attempted to use Gov. Chris Christie's chummy dealings with the president against him.
  • Asset Forfeiture Reform: If anything on the criminal justice reform menu should appeal to conservatives, it should be the idea that the government can't just seize your property without convicting you of a crime. But it happens on all levels of the government: federal, state, and municipal. Significantly, the Department of Justice's lax Equitable Sharing Program allows local law enforcement agencies to state-level restrictions on forfeiture. In a completely separate area, the IRS abuses asset forfeiture regulations to go after small businesses over the way they deposit cash. Fixing these problems requires some federal leadership. Again, Paul is the frontrunner in reform here, but every Republican candidate should be jumping at the opportunity to at least promise to rein in IRS misbehavior.
  • Police Militarization: Can Republicans set aside the idea that enforcing the law in America is yet another type of war? The Obama administration has scaled back some transfer of military equipment to law enforcement agencies. Which candidates are willing to step forward and speak out against police militarization and the federal government's involvement? Which candidates buy in to the police's insistence on using SWAT raids for purposes far beyond the reasons they were created, even when it results in harm to innocent people (and dogs)?

Those are just a couple of options presented because reforms require action on the federal level. This isn't even getting into reforming marijuana laws or letting the states decide how to deal with marijuana (or even other drugs) themselves.

All the candidates, not just Paul, should be pushing for these domestic issues to be brought up in the debate. Why? Because, despite the stereotype of the Republican as the "tough on crime" party, the Democrats have historically been just as bad. Hillary Clinton is not the savior of poor minorities who have been dragged into our federal prison system with disproportionate sentences. She was once a supporter of such a system. Former Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley's pro-drug-war reputation has prompted "black lives matter" hecklers.

Criminal justice reform is not a subject to leave Democratic leaders to claim. They certainly have not earned it. Candidates thinking about where the election is heading after the primaries need to be planning to discuss these issues.