The Democratic Candidates Discuss Their Crime Agendas

The January 8 issue of Ebony Magazine has an interview with Hillary Clinton, John Edwards, Barack Obama and Bill Richardson on their crime and punishment agendas if elected President. It's not yet available online, but can be read at Lexis.com.

Joe Biden isn't interviewed. I'm surprised he didn't take the opportunity to push his new election-year omnibus crime bill, that like his 1994 bill (pdf), mass-federalizes a host of crimes that are and should continue to be prosecuted at the state level. His new bill, S. 2237, introduced October 25, just in time for him to campaign as your toughest law and order Democrat, proposes spending billions on 1,000 new FBI agents, 500 new DEA agents, and 50,000 more police officers, increasing prison sentences and locking up more disadvantaged youths by branding them gang members. (On the plus side, it has some prevention funding and it equalizes crack and powder penalties at the current powder ratio, although he ties the reduction to increased salaries for drug prosecutors and agents. There are better crack-powder bills and on the whole, Biden's bill should be strongly opposed.) As of today, the only co-sponsor of Biden's bill is John Kerry.

By contrast (and in some cases, seemingly in agreement) here's what the other Democratic candidates are advocating. (The Ebony interview covers a lot more topics such as civil rights, jobs and education, so be sure to either check their site for when its available free online or pick up a copy at the newstand.)


John Edwards:

We must end America's disgraceful two criminal justice systems... I will reform sentencing rules to address punishment disparities for crimes involving crack and powder cocaine and review mandatory minimum sentences for first-time, nonviolent offenses. I support incarceration alternatives--like drug courts--for first-time, nonviolent offenders as well as re-entry programs that include drug treatment and education to help ex-offenders get back on track. After someone has paid their debt to society, I would reinstate their right to vote in federal elections.

Barack Obama:

I will recruit more public defenders ... by forgiving college and law school loans... I will review these mandatory minimum sentences to see where we can be smarter on crime and reduce the blind and counterproductive warehousing of nonviolent offenders... I will also eliminate the disparity between sentencing for crack and powder cocaine.

[Note that the Loan Forgiveness bill was signed into law by President Bush in late September, after passing the Senate in July and the House in May. It had been pending in Congress for years... it was a part of the 2002 Innocence Protection Act. The current version, S. 442 was introduced by Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin in January, 2007. A hearing was held and favorable report issued on it in February, 2007. Obama became a co-sponsor in June, 2007, Hillary in July, 2007 and Joe Biden in Feb. 2007. It applies to those who become public defenders and prosecutors, offers reduced interest rates on federal school loans and allows complete forgiveness after 10 years of payments.]

Hillary Clinton:

In the United States, we have been too focused on enforcement and not focused enough on prevention and intervention which are--in the long run--very effective crime-fighting techniques. We must take a comprehensive approach that starts with providing children with a good education. That's why I have proposed early-childhood interventions, K-12 reforms and better access to college. And, as I outlined in my Youth Opportunity Agenda, I plan to increase funding for internships, mentoring and community-based programs for at-risk youth. We also must do more for people who go to prison, such as providing support to help them become economically independent once they are released, like vocational training and job-placement assistance.

More from Barack Obama:

As president, my first act on this issue will be the restoration of full funding for COPS (the Community Oriented Policing Services program). I also support reasonable, common-sense measures to limit the occurrence of gun violence that has taken the lives of too many Americans, and that has particularly ravaged Black communities.

These measures include closing the gun-show loophole and requiring mandatory background checks on purchasers at gun shows... I also believe that we have to make guns in this country childproof... I support making the expired federal Assault Weapons Ban permanent. I believe that these weapons, such as AK-47s, belong on foreign battlefields and not on our streets. These are also not weapons that are used by hunters, sportsmen, and sportswomen.

More from Edwards:

I will help financially-strapped areas invest in community policing that builds trust between law enforcement and the communities they serve. We must focus on strategies that work and stop those that don't--like racial profiling. I will also reform probation and parole so that people coming out of prison get support from their community and those who commit crimes again are held accountable. With the number of African-American young men who are victims of violence or incarcerated, we simply cannot just build more prisons. We must do more.

More from Richardson:

One of every three African-American males born today can expect to go to prison at some point. It's a stunning statistic. This is an issue crying out for more action. We need a vastly improved public education system, so that our kids get off to the right start. We need an expansion of anti-gang programs. Substance abuse treatment is a critical part of the solution - drug-related crimes represent a huge percentage of those in prison. Our youth need alternatives and they need to believe in the possibility of better life, they need opportunities and they need role models. So in addition to policy action, as president I'd bring moral leadership on this issue. I am proud of my record fighting crime throughout my career... I also understand that part of fighting illegal activities is providing more legal opportunities to those who feel they have no choice but crime.

On the gang bills, opposed since 2005 by the NAACP, the American Civil Liberties Union, Human Rights Watch and others, here's what Wayne McKenzie, a former prosecutor, and now Director of the Vera Institute’s Prosecution and Racial Justice Program had to say in an article by Brian Gilmore on the EbonyJet website about Feinstein's S. 456 that recently passed the Senate and is awaiting House action:

“The Gang Prevention, Intervention and Suppression Act,” as the title suggests, aggressively targets gangs, gang activity and crime, but in the process, targets juveniles of color, mainly African-Americans and Latinos. It is simple criminal justice work: many gang associated crimes will be federal crimes now so federal prosecutors with the full weight of Uncle Sam’s deep pockets, can start filling up adult federal prisons with African-American and Latino youth, who comprise a large number of gang members. It is the same formula that has been incredibly successful in filling up state and federal prisons during the failed War on Drugs.

The bill re-defines gangs broadly and vaguely and also makes the penalties for gang crimes and gang activity more severe than they are now. This includes life sentences in prison without parole for some crimes.

Of course, many states already have laws to deal with gang activity, but it is nearing election time, and the Democrats in Congress, who were too cowardly to stop the war in Iraq, and cannot deliver health care for some children living on the edge, have to deliver something to the people. This year’s political sacrifice: thousands of African-American and Latino youth in prison if the bill passes.

The U.S. Sentencing Commission recently reported that:

75 percent of those incarcerated because of the enactment of the bill into law will be African-American or Latino. This is consistent with most of the available statistics on this issue.

Gilmore's article notes:

Of the more than 2200 individuals in the world sentenced to life in prison without parole as a juvenile, all but 12 of these individuals are in U.S. prisons. No other country in the world thinks this is credible criminal justice policy.

To Obama's credit on that issue, he wasn't one of the 44 co-sponsors of the gang bill, a list that included Hillary and Biden and just about every other progressive Democrat. From what I could tell, it was passed by unanimous consent and there's no individual record on how or if he voted on it. More objections to the gang bills are accessible here.

< Edwards List Reasons to Vote for Him Over Obama | Rudy Promises Transparency...And the Check's in the Mail >
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    The presidential candidates in Iowa think (none / 0) (#1)
    by JSN on Fri Dec 14, 2007 at 08:17:06 PM EST
    by talking about  restoring funding for the COPS program they will get our support. Some of us (unfortunately too few of us to make the difference) are well aware of how it help overflow our jails and overload our courts  and want no part of it.

    We had a 50% increase in the number of jail bookings after they hired more cops and most of them were for simple misdemeanors that should be been dealt with as at most a warning or cite and release. the number booked for more serious offenses stayed the same. At the same time the state reduced the staff in the clerk of court office and court bogged down. Thanks a lot congress for making a bad situation worse.

    Keep your COPS money we know from experience it will only last for a few years and then the funds will be diverted to some other federal pork project that is more popular.


    For a lot of (none / 0) (#2)
    by Jgarza on Fri Dec 14, 2007 at 09:16:48 PM EST
    big cities COPS money is really important.  It really helps big cities keep balanced budgets, because generally public safety is a huge, and now that the subsidies have been taken away, booming part of the budget.  ON top of less subsidies the refocus of FBI and federal law enforcement away from crime and onto terrorism, has really tossed a lot of the tax burden on state and local government.  Even back when Bush cut taxes most people payed more in taxes because their local government raised taxes, to offset all the federal cuts.

    In Austin, where I live public safety represents, 80 percent of the General Fund Budget.  It is so much money it it uses up all the cities sales and property tax revenue(which is it's prime source of funding).  The only reason there are any other expenditures are from revenue transfers from enterprise funds.  

    Jeralyn, I apreciate what you do here at Talkleft (none / 0) (#3)
    by Rojas on Sat Dec 15, 2007 at 07:05:55 AM EST
    and I think it's important, vitaly important in fact. But please stop refering to these people as "Progressive Democrats". These are defining issues. These are civil rights issues and once again this represents a structural shift from some democrats like we saw in the 90s.

    These people sponsoring this bill are not mentally sub-normal. They know what incarceration in this country means. It means putting these kids in warehouses in which we let the ethnic gangs have the first level of control. The prison idustry model of effiency, a economic method to maintain order with fewer paid staff.
    And to think that "enlightened progressive" represenatives believe getting these kids in this enviorment sooner, to be raped and abused untill they obtain the protection of a gang....It's very definition of insanity, doing the same thing over and over again expecting a different result.