Democrats wrestle with 'tough on crime' histories

Democrats wrestle with 'tough on crime' histories
© Getty Images

Democratic presidential hopefuls, including former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenEight Democratic presidential hopefuls to appear in CNN climate town hall Hill Reporter Rafael Bernal: Biden tries to salvage Latino Support Biden, Buttigieg bypassing Democratic delegate meeting: report MORE and Sen. Kamala HarrisKamala Devi HarrisEight Democratic presidential hopefuls to appear in CNN climate town hall Biden, Buttigieg bypassing Democratic delegate meeting: report The Hill's Morning Report - Trump on defense over economic jitters MORE (D-Calif.) are wrestling with their past “tough on crime” positions as the primary battle heats up.

Biden, the frontrunner for his party’s nomination, has seen his role in the 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act come under deep scrutiny.

Sen. Cory BookerCory Anthony BookerEight Democratic presidential hopefuls to appear in CNN climate town hall Biden, Buttigieg bypassing Democratic delegate meeting: report F-bombs away: Why lawmakers are cursing now more than ever MORE (D-N.J.) and Biden have engaged in a heated battle all week over issues of criminal justice, with the former Newark mayor offering pointed criticism of Biden’s past support for the crime bill. Booker said Biden’s crime bill had put “mass incarceration on steroids” and that the party needed a leader more in tune with its future.

ADVERTISEMENT

The Biden campaign has responded by attacking Booker’s record as mayor of Newark, including the way Newark police stopped and frisked black men, and the city’s objection when the Justice Department took action against Newark’s police.

The context for the fight is a bitter battle for African American voters, who are a key to winning the Democratic primary. Biden has a large lead in polls with black voters, but Booker and Harris are seeking to make inroads. New York City Mayor Bill DeBlasio, another presidential candidate far back in the large field, has also ripped Biden over the 1990s crime bill.

The crime bill authored by Biden was popular at the time it passed, including within the African American community. It significantly expanded sentencing and implemented the so-called “three strikes” provision, which allowed for mandatory life sentences for those with at least three federal convictions for federal violent or drug-related crimes.

The law has come under heavy criticism in recent years for leading to the mass incarceration of African-Americans, including the jailing of many people on drug offenses that disproportionately fell on blacks.

When Biden denied that mass incarceration was a consequence of the bill, Harris responded in May after a New Hampshire town hall.

“I have a great deal of respect for Vice President Joe Biden, but I disagree. That crime bill, that 1994 crime bill, it did contribute to mass incarceration in this country,” she said.

Biden has largely defended his part in writing and passing the crime bill, including as recently as June acknowledging some issues but saying the bill also contained “a lot of good things.”

He also rolled out a criminal justice reform proposal this week that aims to reduce prison populations and addresses differences in sentencing that lead to more jail time for African Americans.

Harris, who served as district attorney of San Francisco and attorney general of California, has also faced questions about the role she played in sentencing guidelines. This included a state truancy law that, in certain cases, allowed parents whose children missed school to be arrested. She has since acknowledged “unintended consequences” related to the law.

Harris’s record as a prosecutor also has come under scrutiny from criminal justice reform advocates.  As California attorney general, her office fought to release fewer prisoners amid overcrowding in the state’s system, with lawyers from her office arguing in 2014 that the releases could deprive the state of a source of labor.

Harris herself spoke out against the attorneys’ arguments, saying they were made without her knowledge.

“The idea that we incarcerate people to have indentured servitude is one of the worst possible perceptions,” she told ThinkProgress, a news blog run by the liberal Center for American Progress, in November of 2014. “I feel very strongly about that. It evokes images of chain gangs. I take it very seriously and I’m looking into exactly what needs to be done to correct it.”

Harris also advanced some progressive reforms, such as reentry initiatives, as district attorney and attorney general, and as a senator has introduced a bill with Sen. Rand PaulRandal (Rand) Howard PaulGraham promises ObamaCare repeal if Trump, Republicans win in 2020 Conservatives buck Trump over worries of 'socialist' drug pricing Rand Paul to 'limit' August activities due to health MORE (R-Ky.) that would provide states with incentives to update or replace their bail systems. Her presidential campaign website emphasizes her support for reforms such as re-entry programs and legalizing marijuana.

While criminal justice and crime issues have not received as much attention on the campaign trail as issues such as health care and immigration, polling indicates there is interest in the issue.

A May poll by BlackPAC that asked respondents to name three issues significant to them found 24 percent named police accountability, 9 percent named reducing crime and violence  and 16 percent named criminal justice reform — totaling a full 49 percent of respondents.

Americans are less concerned about violent crime than they have been in decades, according to polling released by Gallup last November.

Just under 49 percent of respondents said crime in the U.S. is extremely or very serious, compared to 59 percent who described it as such in 2017. The finding marks the first time since 2005 that under 50 percent of Americans viewed crime as extremely or very serious.

Criminal justice reform could be an issue in the general election.

President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump pushes back on recent polling data, says internal numbers are 'strongest we've had so far' Illinois state lawmaker apologizes for photos depicting mock assassination of Trump Scaramucci assembling team of former Cabinet members to speak out against Trump MORE, whose administration spearheaded a criminal justice reform bill through Congress last year, has already hit Biden over his support for the crime bill from the 1990s.

After Trump tweeted in May that “African Americans will not be able to vote for” Biden due to his role in the 1994 crime bill, The New York Times reported that Trump aides were discussing staging a criminal justice event to underscore Biden’s support for legislation that has since become unpopular.

Trump of course has his own challenges when it comes to issues surrounding race.

Earlier this month he was denounced in a House vote for tweets that said four Democratic congresswomen, all U.S. citizens and members of minority groups, should go back to their home countries.

In 1989, Trump bought newspaper ads calling for the execution of the five teenagers charged with the brutal rape and assault of a jogger in Central Park. The teenagers were later exonerated after DNA evidence came to the forefront, but Trump has continued to question their innocence.

Just this week, the Justice Department announced it would reinstall the use of the federal death penalty for the first time since 2003.

At the same time, one of Trump’s few legislative victories in his first term was a criminal just reform bill.

Congress last year approved the First Step Act, which reduces some mandatory minimum sentences and expands on “good time credits” for good behavior. Trump backed the measure, which was spearheaded by his son-in-law, the White House adviser Jared KushnerJared Corey KushnerTop immigration aide experienced 'jolt of electricity to my soul' when Trump announced campaign Dick Cheney to attend fundraiser supporting Trump reelection: report Trump Jr. dismisses conflicts of interest, touts projects in Indonesia MORE.

The First Step Act, combined with continual good economic news, could help Trump with minority votes, said Ford O’Connell, a GOP strategist and adjunct professor at The George Washington University.

It “definitely gives Trump some added ammo he didn’t have in 2016,” he said.

Trump won 8 percent of the black vote in 2016, according to exit polls. That was better than 2012 GOP nominee Mitt RomneyWillard (Mitt) Mitt RomneyA US-UK free trade agreement can hold the Kremlin to account Ex-CIA chief worries campaigns falling short on cybersecurity Overnight Defense: US, Russia tensions grow over nuclear arms | Highlights from Esper's Asia trip | Trump strikes neutral tone on Hong Kong protests | General orders ethics review of special forces MORE, who faced the first black president in Obama.

But only 9 percent of black voters approved of Trump in a YouGov survey from April.