2016 Republican Convention

RNC Platform Awkwardly Embraces Some Criminal Justice Reforms—and New Mandatory Minimums

The Republican platform "applauds" recent state reforms but also continues the party's support for the death penalty and mandatory minimums.

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MOLLY RILEY/UPI/Newscom

The 2016 Republican Party platform, approved at the party's national convention in Cleveland on Monday, embraces many of the state-level criminal justice reforms enacted by GOP governors in recent years. But it also continues the party's support for the death penalty and mandatory minimums for violent crimes.

In a lengthy section, the Republican Party applauds the state-level reforms signed into law by GOP governors in states like Texas, Georgia, and Alaska. But it also says mandatory minimum sentences are "an important tool" in keeping prisoners off the streets:

We applaud the Republican Governors and legislators who have been implementing criminal justice reforms like those proposed by our 2012 platform. Along with diversion of first-time, nonviolent offenders to community sentencing, accountability courts, drug courts, veterans treatment courts, and guidance by faithbased institutions with proven track records of rehabilitation, our platform emphasized restorative justice to make the victim whole and put the offender on the right path. As variants of these reforms are undertaken in many states, we urge the Congress to learn from what works. In the past, judicial discretion about sentences led to serious mistakes concerning dangerous criminals. Mandatory minimum sentencing became an important tool for keeping them off the streets. Modifications to it should be targeted toward particular categories, especially nonviolent offenders and persons with drug, alcohol, or mental health issues, and should require disclosure by the courts of any judicial departure from the state's sentencing requirements."

However, that language is a softening of sorts from the party's 2012 platform, which plainly stated the GOP's support for "mandatory prison sentencing for gang crimes, violent or sexual offenses against children, repeat drug dealers, rape, robbery and murder."

True to form, the RNC's 2016 platform calls for new mandatory minimum sentences "for all assaults involving serious injury to law enforcement officers," echoing GOP Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, who recently introduced such a bill in Congress. U.S. News and World Report reported last week that the mandatory sentences created by the bill could send thousands to federal prison a year.

Republicans also took time in their platform to bash the Justice Department for its "refusal to enforce laws"—presumably a reference to its hands-off approach to state marijuana legalization—and its handling of protests. The platform goes so far as to call for prosecution of Justice Department officials.

"[The Justice Department] has urged leniency for rioters while turning a blind eye to mob attacks on peaceful citizens exercising their political rights," the platform says. "A new administration must ensure the immediate dismissal and, where appropriate, prosecution of any Department officials who have violated their oath of office."

(The GOP platform only mentions marijuana once in a section on drug abuse, noting that it "is virtually legalized despite its illegality under federal law." In the 2012 GOP platform, marijuana legalization was not mentioned at all.)

The Republican Party also reiterated its support for the death penalty. The constitutionality of the death penalty, the 2016 platform says, "is firmly settled."

"With the murder rate soaring in our great cities, we condemn the Supreme Court's erosion of the right of the people to enact capital punishment in their states," the platform reads.

The platform also includes a call for mens rea reform, which would add intent requirements to many federal crimes and regulations. Currently, much of the expansive federal code does not require that defendant have knowledge that he or she is breaking a law.

The issue has become a sticking point in the otherwise bipartisan effort to pass criminal justice reform in Congress. Liberal lawmakers, joined by groups like the ACLU and the Center for American Progress, argue that the additions would let white collar criminals and corporations off the hook, while conservatives say lack of mens rea requirements results in unwitting citizens having their livelihood after running afoul of the massive amount of criminal offenses on the books.

"The over-federalization of criminal justice is one of many ways in which the government in Washington has intruded beyond its proper jurisdiction," the platform says. "The essential role of federal law enforcement personnel in protecting federal property and combating interstate crime should not be compromised by diversion to matters properly handled by state and local authorities."

Overall, the RNC platform gives a Christian side hug to many of the planks supported by the conservative side of the criminal justice reform movement, while doggedly continuing its insistence that the death penalty, federal drug prohibition, and mandatory minimums are appropriate and effective deterrents to crime.