The Times rightly highlights the astonishing fact of how many of the presidential candidates, regardless of party, agree on the need for often similar reforms of the criminal justice system, in this new book released today by the Brennan Center. As the Times puts it:
The last time a Clinton and a Bush ran for president, the country was awash in crime and the two parties were competing to show who could be tougher on murderers, rapists and drug dealers. Sentences were lengthened and new prisons sprouted up across the country.
But more than two decades later, declared and presumed candidates for president are competing over how to reverse what they see as the policy excesses of the 1990s and the mass incarceration that has followed. Democrats and Republicans alike are putting forth ideas to reduce the prison population and rethink a system that has locked up a generation of young men, particularly African-Americans.
Former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, Senator Ted Cruz and Senator Rand Paul want to ease mandatory minimum sentences. Gov. Chris Christie wants to release nonviolent offenders pending trial without bail. Gov. Scott Walker, former Gov. Rick Perry and former Senator James Webb want to expand drug treatment as an alternative to prison. Senator Marco Rubio wants to make it harder to convict federal defendants without proving intent.
Online, here, the Times also summarizes the policy suggestions.
Some thoughts. First, this really is an astonishing transformation. Since the Watts riots, fear of crime has been a driving political force, particularly exploited by one party. Until very recently, the response to Ferguson, others, and now Baltimore, would be to subtly suggest that all who fail to support “our” police are themselves a threat. While there are many reasons, from the fall in crime, to the massive cost of incarceration, to the use of video cameras, to having a black President, to right wing donors interest in change (thank you Citizens United!), the old songs do just not play anymore.
Secondly, I found it hard not to feel that the news is not in the suggestions, but rather in who is making them. For those involved in the justice system, there are unlikely to be many new ideas in the book (and why, please, do politicians spend all their time bragging about what they have achieved, rather than trying to make suggestions for the future?)
Thirdly, that there is almost general consensus about general approaches means that this might be a time for broader debate about a new generation of changes that go beyond the tried but not fully replicated ones. Could we find better ways to support neighborhoods and neighborhood networks that try to help when kids get into trouble? What can we do to make the justice system (all of it) less of an enemy?
Fourthly, why do we not have any book like this on the civil justice system. If anything is sure, it is the chasm that often divides communities and the legal system is not just about cops and criminal courts, but also about all the quasi-criminal civil enforcement systems, about which most citizens do not make complex jurisdictional distinctions. Obviously, we do not yet have the attention from politicians to the civil justice system, but to say that is just to restate the problem. It may be that we have been reluctant to engage the political class for fear of politicizing the issue. But what has happened in the criminal justice area would suggest that engagement does not necessarily lead to politicization, rather it may transcend it.