Despite having the opportunity to clarify their stances on criminal justice issues, Democratic presidential frontrunners Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders failed to offer any real solutions to the problems at large during last night's Democratic debate.
Two questions were posed for the candidates on criminal justice issues. First, a Facebook question asking, "Do black lives matter, or do all lives matter?" Second, a question on marijuana legalization.
Sanders offered a bold response to the black lives matter question, insofar as he said, "black lives do matter," and brought up the case of Sandra Bland, a woman who was pulled over for changing lanes without signaling and was found dead in a jail cell three days later. He noted high incarceration rates, but when it came to offering real solutions in dealing with the problems of our broken criminal justice system, Sanders disappointingly he intended to "make sure that our people have education and jobs rather than jail cells."
This response seems to be in line with what he's done throughout his career, which is to side-step the issue of criminal justice reform and instead just talk about education and jobs, as noted earlier this week at the Marshall Project.
Hillary took a more moderate approach to the "black lives matter" question, instead choosing to praise President Obama for being a "great moral leader on these issues," and further stating "What we need to be doing is not only reforming criminal justice…we need to tackle mass incarceration." Seemed like a good start.
But, like Sanders, Hillary followed with a statement that offered no concrete solutions, and in fact had little to do with criminal justice reform at all. She said, "We've got to do more about the lives of these children, that's why I started off by saying we need to be committed to making it possible for every child to live up to his or her God given potential. That is really hard to do is you don't have early childhood education, if you don't have schools that are able to meet the needs of good people or good housing—there's a long list. We need a new New Deal for communities of color and the poor." Back to her old, familiar talking points it is, then!
When both candidates were asked if they would vote in favor of the marijuana legalization ballot initiative in Nevada if they could, Sanders outright said that he would, which is the first time he's publicly supported marijuana legalization.
When Hillary was asked the same question, she responded that she was not ready to take a position on legalized marijuana, a response she's stuck with for a while now. She then went on to say the following: "We've got to stop imprisoning people who use marijuana, need more states, cities, and the federal government to begin to address this so that we don't have this terrible result that Sen. Sanders was talking about, where we have a huge population in our prisons for nonviolent, low-level offenses that are primarily due to marijuana."
But, as Jacob Sullum noted earlier today, a very small minority of prison sentences for drug offenses are for marijuana. Many more who are incarcerated for "low-level" drug offenses are there for possessing, manufacturing, or selling drugs like heroin, cocaine, or methamphetamine. Indeed, Sullum notes, "even releasing all drug offenders, who represent about one-fifth of the [total] prison population, would still leave a lot to do."
Besides some factual inaccuracies about who exactly is in prison for nonviolent offenses, what makes these candidates' responses to particularly disappointing is that there are so. many. possible reforms they could have offered. And yet Hillary and Bernie chose to stick to talking points that are both stale and unappealing, particularly to those who care about reforming our broken criminal justice system.
Of course, it's important to remember that Hillary has had a pretty abysmal record when it comes to criminal justice issues, publicly supporting Bill Clinton's 1994 Crime Bill, advocating draconian Three Strikes laws, and criticizing then-presidential candidate Barack Obama for being "too soft on crime" during the 2008 election campaign. While she's started to retreat from those positions, it's hard to know if she's doing so only because being against reform will make it harder for her to be elected. As highlighted earlier, Sanders has never really been a champion of criminal justice reform throughout his career (and it should be noted that he indeed voted for the final version of the 1994 Crime Bill).
But criminal justice reform is popular with the public these days. Search on any given day and you'll find at least one article touting the bipartisanship of the issue. Indeed, black lives matter activists have also taken to interrupting Bernie Sanders during a campaign speech, and have publicly met with both him and Clinton in recent weeks. Earlier this year, Clinton gave a speech on the merits of reform, though once again offered limited concrete solutions.
I don't mean to downplay the significance of having such a topic discussed during the first Democratic debate. I do, however, think it's unfair for Democrats or criminal justice reform supporters to throw all of their hopes and dreams behind two candidates who have either done basically nothing on the issue or have supported the very same "tough-on-crime" policies that were a major driver to the incarceration problems we're facing today, despite some evidence that they're beginning to head in the other direction. Given that there were more substantive responses on the issue given at the Republican debate, and that Bernie and Hillary failed to deliver any real concrete policy solutions despite the softball questions thrown their way, I'm afraid many who favor a more just criminal justice system will end up disappointed if one of these candidates is elected in 2016.