The last few years have seen an absolute revolution in the way the public thinks about the criminal justice system. Since the late 1970s, criminal penalties became increasingly draconian, law enforcement budgets ballooned and prisons were built at an astronomic pace. When in doubt, all a politician had to do was present themselves as tough on crime and the voters ate it up. As a result, across the country politicians fell over themselves and one another to outflank their opponents and be the toughest on crime. This led to the overcriminalization and over-incarceration of America that we are currently coming to grips with.
As evidence-based studies piled up showing the ineffectiveness of over-incarceration and costs, both direct and indirect, of decades of wrongheaded policy, the change began. Politicians on both the left and the right began thinking and speaking about criminal justice policy in ways that would have been fatal to a political career just a few years ago. The phrase “smart on crime” became a refrain and we started thinking as a society about what we were really accomplishing with all the money we were spending caging our fellow citizens, simultaneously draining those limited resources from things like education, infrastructure and social safety nets that have been demonstrated time and time again to effectively lower crime rates.
Somewhat surprisingly, the new way of thinking has actually gathered bipartisan support, with those on the right seeing the fiscal calamity of over-incarceration. But the right, traditionally the torchbearers of law and order, have not taken to criminal justice reform with the fervor that the left has. On the left, criminal justice reform is now seen, correctly, as one of the pressing civil rights issues of our time. Being seen as standing in the way of this movement is now as dangerous as being Democrat who opposes Roe V. Wade.
The problem for some Democratic politicians who have been around a while is that they have track records on criminal justice from a time when being “soft” or even “smart” on crime was a politically bad idea. Just as we saw Hillary Clinton criticized for and try to distance herself from her mid-nineties speeches about super predators and her support for the crime bills of that era that directly led to the explosion in our federal prison population, there are candidates eyeing the 2020 Democratic nomination with similar baggage.
Joe Biden was around for many of those votes and has already issued a mea culpa in anticipation of the criticism. Kamala Harris, a lifelong prosecutor, has not even bothered to acknowledge her frankly horrific record on criminal justice issues and is instead simply reimagining herself as a leader of the movement.
Times change and people can change with them. I am not suggesting here that a person's past record should be disqualified if they have shown a willingness to change their mind and move to the correct side of an issue. However, for my money, when I look at a political candidate, I like to look for the people who supported ideas they believed they were right before it was popular to do so. When I go to cast my votes next year, I will be looking for candidates with track records that demonstrate they generally believe in criminal justice reform, not those who appear to have simply shifted with the changing political winds.
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