Democrats Need to Step Up on Criminal Justice Reform

At Bloomberg Politics you can find a rather odd Dave Weigel piece (and I don’t often say anything non-positive about his work) about a DC gabfest on criminal justice reform that suggests some people (it’s not really clear who Dave’s talking about, other than one dude who runs a prison-related business, and presumably his own self) trust Republicans more than Democrats in “undoing bad law” on criminal offenses and sentencing. There’s also a tribute from a progressive Georgia pastor to Republican Gov. Nathan Deal, and then this complaint from former NAACP president Ben Jealous:

“Go back and look at Hillary Clinton in 2008,” said Jealous. “Every other Democrat running for president was saying, look, not only do we need to cut the disparity for crack/cocaine sentencing, we need to have retroactivity. It’s not fair for someone who sold two rocks to do more time than someone who sold half a kilo of powder. She was the only one who said no to retroactivity.”

As of March 26, there was no Hillary Clinton campaign, and no one to say what her current policy was on reform. That might worry Democrats. “People understand the price of having cowardly friends,” said Jealous. “There’s a quote from Martin Luther King, in the Letter from Birmingham Jail, about how his biggest problem wasn’t the bigots. It was the moderates. And we’re back to that.”

I don’t recall too many Republicans favoring drug law and sentencing reform in 2008, either, so I don’t know that’s evidence the GOP is ahead of the game.

Now obviously people who want to get things done as quickly as possible are going to flatter Republicans about their leadership on this subject, because (a) they control both congressional chambers, (b) they control a majority of state governments, and (c) they’re the ones who pushed through most of the laws that now need reforming.

And while sure, there were “moderate” Democrats who rubber-stamped really bad laws on crime and drugs back in the 1980s and 1990s, it’s not like it represented some sort of ideology. Hell, I was the only crime policy writer at the “centrist” Democratic Leadership Council for years, and I could and did rant against mandatory minimum sentences–the source of a lot of the problem–at the drop of a hat.

But assuming Republicans are no longer going to attack Democrats for being “soft on crime,” then there’s not even a bare cynical political reason for any Democrats to be anything other than fully on board reform efforts. Indeed, I won’t believe they are not on board until I see something more convincing than a seven-year old criticism of Hillary Clinton. And in the mean time, before Republicans are given the full “Nixon-to-China” treatment on the subject that Weigel is already offering, maybe it would be a good idea to get the chairmen of the House and Senate Judiciary Committees fully and publicly on board.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.