How Criminal Justice Reform Is Changing the Political Landscape


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The government’s approach to criminal justice has changed dramatically in recent history. In 1994, President Bill Clinton led the charge in an effort to be “tough on crime” by passing the “Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994.” There were many facets to the bill, but elements like the three strikes provision and increased incarceration led to overcrowding in jails.

On top of that, the courts began relying on plea bargains to minimize their increased case load. In total, the bill’s cost tallied up to $30 billion and critics argue the bill led to many issues within minority communities. While President Clinton still defends the bill, it is clear that many in government are now looking at ways to reduce the number of jailed citizens, particularly for
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non-violent crimes.

Democrats Approach to Criminal Justice Reform

Politically, minority voters have been a key voting bloc for the Democratic Party over the last 50 years. The group Black Lives Matter was founded in 2012 and has recently grown in prominence. As a result of this relationship, Democrats have been very quick to adopt as many policies as possible that can be seen as “Criminal Justice Reform.” During the 2016 Presidential Primary, Bernie Sanders addressed issues like mass incarceration, police reform, private prisons, capital punishment, and violent/non-violent crimes. Hillary Clinton also had a highly extensive criminal justice reform platform on her website where she supported many of the same policies as Bernie along with a few more specifically. In all, she addressed 17 different policy items she would have addressed as President. Hillary’s incredibly poor performance in rural communities could be partially attributed to her strong position on the issue, so the rhetoric attached to criminal justice reform may be slightly adjusted by some Democrats.

As Hillary’s election results showed, there’s certainly a line where “reforms” become coddling. Critics contest that in some highly liberal states we may be reaching the point where new reforms are for scoring political points rather than addressing potential problems. One situation that had many up in arms was when liberal activists requested that polling stations be placed in jails. This is a follow-up to a bill the Maryland legislature passed that gave felons who were still on parole the right to vote. Will that bill help reduce recidivism or will it just be a political tactic for the Democratic Party to get more votes? Only time will tell. Democrats proactiveness in the area has helped them with their base which has led to a deluge of new bills, but it has also helped shrink the party’s appeal to some voters due to overreach.

Republicans Approach to Criminal Justice Reform

Republicans are taking a wide range of approaches to criminal justice reform depending on their own personal views and the support or opposition from their constituents. Also, complicating the manner, the opinion of many Republican voters that groups like Black Lives Matter target the police and violence against police is on the rise as a result. In response to this, many red states are looking to bills to provide better support for law enforcement. One example of such a bill is the “Blue Lives Matter” bill that was passed in Louisiana. This bill would classify public safety workers like police officers as a protected class under hate-crime law. This would increase the penalties in cases where police officers were targeted in an attack. In some other red states, criminal justice reform became a necessity as prison-construction costs rose significantly. Reducing expenditures is a naturally conservative ideal, but occasionally it can clash with the goal of keeping law and order. Red state Republicans have had to balance the demands of their constituents with the potential positive or negative effects of reforms that reduce the prison population.

In blue states like Illinois, Massachusetts, and Maryland, Republican Governors are taking a very pragmatic position on the issue where they veto bills that they feel are overreaching while proposing their own that they believe better address the issue. For example, Governor Larry Hogan vetoed multiple bills dealing with criminal justice in 2015 only to usher through a highly comprehensive “Justice Reinvestment Act” in 2016. Many of these Governors serve as a check against highly liberal legislatures that may try to do too much in order to appeal to their base. Many of these Governors are highly popular due to these moves and others. Governor Charlie Baker of Massachusetts is the most popular Governor in the country while Governor Hogan of Maryland is the 2nd most popular. Focusing on where they can work with Democrats on areas like criminal justice reform has proven to be politically advantageous for each of them.

The Future of Criminal Justice Reform

Criminal justice reform has been a continuous pendulum where government pushes through policies to reduce crime and then realizes that many of these same policies could also be increasing crime in the future by being too weak on crime. The election of Donald Trump will likely have a huge impact on both the future of criminal justice reform and its political ramifications. Trump has shown more support for the wing of the Republican Party who tends to be tougher on crime while also placing some focus on improving the inner cities. At some point in his administration, there will be another case of police brutality and how he handles it could define how each party reacts going forward. Trump’s success among white rural voters could partially be attributed to his support for law enforcement compared to Hillary’s focus on police brutality. Will Democrats soften their rhetoric as a result of these electoral results? It’s yet to be seen. It would not be surprising though to see state legislatures pass too many laws that may make them too weak on crime. Over time, all anyone can hope for is a happy medium is reached.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Patrick O'Keefe
Patrick O’Keefe is the Content Manager for Blackford & Flohr, a criminal defense law firm in Severna Park, Maryland.

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Disclaimer: While every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this publication, it is not intended to provide legal advice as individual situations will differ and should be discussed with an expert and/or lawyer. For specific technical or legal advice on the information provided and related topics, please contact the author.

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