USA: Here’s what presidential candidates’ websites say about criminal justice reform

Criminal justice reform is the 1 issue that just about everyone seems to agree on right now. There are certainly disagreements over the details, but from the Koch Brothers to ThinkProgress, from Rand Paul to Bernie Sanders, from Newt Gingrich to Al Sharpton, from the Heritage Foundation to Black Lives Matter, nearly everyone agrees at least in principle that the system needs to be reformed.
Oddly though, criminal justice is all but absent on the websites most of the major contenders for the 2016 election. I just reviewed the sites for all of the announced candidates. (I know, I’m a glutton for punishment.) The 1st thing that struck me odd is just how little discussion there is of any issue on the candidates’ sites. Everyone has a bio, links to donate, links to volunteer, and a schedule. Some sites list the candidate’s major pieces of legislation and accomplishments in office, which does at least give some indication of what issues are important and where they stand on those issues. But there’s very little in the way of specific policy proposals, priorities, and positions. Most seem to be running on their personalities.
But even within the relatively light coverage of actual issues, criminal justice lags far behind. Only a handful of candidates address it at all. On the GOP side, there’s much discussion of ISIS, Iran, Israel, and of course Obama. Among the Democrats, there’s language about getting money out of politics (good luck!), income inequality, and health care. But for all the talk lately of policing, prisons, marijuana legalization, and so on, these issues still haven’t penetrated presidential politics. Basically there’s Martin O’Malley and Rand Paul, and then there’s everyone else.
This isn’t a review of the candidates’ records or a critique of their positions on these issues (although I’ll do some of that). It’s more of an evaluation of how (and if) they address criminal justice on their campaign sites. So here we go.
The Gold Stars:
By far and away, the most thorough, thoughtful, and detailed analysis of criminal justice issues is on the website of Martin O’Malley. “Criminal Justice Reform” is the 1st item listed under O’Malley’s “Issues” page. On the criminal justice page itself, O’Malley lays out several core principles, with key policies he’d push for each.
Under “Build Trust in Law Enforcement,” O’Malley proposes expanding and mandating data reporting from police agencies for “police-involved shootings, custodial deaths, discourtesy complaints, and use of excessive force.” The site adds that, “This data should be centralized in a universal database and made publicly available, allowing communities to observe trends and develop policy responses when necessary.”
O’Malley also proposes a national use of force standard, which he’ll then try to require each state to adapt. He proposes using the incentive of federal grants to encourage a variety of programs aimed at curbing common problems in policing, including, “undergoing racial bias training and crisis de-escalation training; establishing internal accountability measures to track and review civilian complaints and address officer misconduct; and creating and empowering civilian review boards to independently monitor and audit policing cases.” He also promises to work with law enforcement groups, civil liberties advocates, and technology experts to come up with national standards for the use of police body cameras.
Additionally, O’Malley wants to reform asset forfeiture laws to put an emphasis on public safety (as opposed to providing revenue for police agencies). He promises to encourage states to pass laws requiring independent investigations of police shootings, and most interestingly, he proposes to strengthen the Justice Department’s civil rights division by reducing the standard required for them to investigate abuses.
O’Malley’s next principle is called “Increase Fairness in Sentencing.” Here, he proposes eliminating the crack/powder cocaine sentencing disparity entirely, reclassifying marijuana as a Schedule II drug, eliminating mandatory minimums for low-level drug offenders, and giving judges and prosecutors more discretion on sentencing for more serious crimes. He also promises to push for abolishing the federal death penalty.
O’Malley then offers a number of proposals to reduce recidivism and promote successful reentry for former prisoners, including job training programs, and suggests reauthorizing and expanding the 2008 Second Chance Act, which provides funding for “housing and benefits, substance abuse treatment, mentoring, education, and job training” for recently released prisoners. He wants to re-fund Pell Grants for inmates (as the Obama administration recently did), dramatically reduce solitary confinement, and ban solitary for juveniles.
Up next, O’Malley looks at restoring the rights of former prisoners. He proposes a federal “fair chance” policy that would prohibit the federal government and its contractors from denying employment based solely on an applicant’s prior criminal record. He suggests permanent seals or expungement of juvenile records, restoring voting rights to felons who have served their sentences, and ending the federal ban on public assistance programs for people with drug records. He also promises to face out private prisons at the federal level.
Under the heading “Reinvest to Ensure Justice,” O’Malley proposes programs to invest in drug treatment, mental health, and provide better training for law enforcement to deal with people in crisis. He offers policies to address the school-to-prison pipeline, the shortage of public defenders, immigration detention centers, and reforming the troubled Custom and Border Patrol.
Lastly, O’Malley outlines what you might call a holistic approach to reform by including several policies that he believes will improve income inequality, like raising the minimum wage, strengthening the power of unions, student loan forgiveness, child care, and immigration reform.
Whatever you think of these policies – I agree with many; I have some problems with others – it’s clear that O’Malley has both given a lot of thought to criminal justice reform and plans to make the issue a key part of his campaign. It almost reads like a wish list of policies reform groups have been advocating for years. The section on policing in particular shows that O’Malley has followed the national debate closely, and has a deep and nuanced understanding of the issues at stake.
If anything, O’Malley’s policies may be a bit too ambitious. Most criminal justice policy is made at the state and local level. O’Malley could do a lot to change how federal laws are enforced, but with the states, he’ll be restricted mostly to encouraging best practices or trying to incentivize reform by offering or threatening to withhold federal money. There’s also the matter of how O’Malley would get these policies passed. If he plans to promote policies that would strengthen public service unions, for example, he’ll also be giving more power to the already-powerful police unions, nearly all of which will almost certainly oppose nearly every policing reform on O’Malley’s website. I’d also like to see O’Malley’s position on Byrne Grants, federally-funded multi-jurisdictional anti-drug and anti-gang task forces (which have a long history of problems) and police militarization.
And finally, O’Malley took a lot of criticism earlier this year for some the policies he implemented as mayor of Baltimore, including a policy of mass arrests that critics say created a lot of the same problems O’Malley addresses on his campaign website. It would be helpful to include a section in which he explains those policies, whether or not he still thinks they were good ideas, if he’d encourage other mayors to adopt similar policies, and how those policies jibe with his larger themes of fairness, second chances, redemption, and the destructiveness of a criminal record.
But given just how far out in front of the other candidates O’Malley is, these are minor quibbles. O’Malley demonstrates an understanding and appreciation of these issues on a level like no other candidate save perhaps for Rand Paul. Agree or disagree, he has certainly opened the discussion.
Rand Paul
Paul has disappointed some of his libertarian supporters of late with a rightward lurch on issues from Iran to immigration to putting a high priority on defunding Planned Parenthood. Still, no other candidate from the two major parties can match his legislative record on criminal justice reform. As I’ve pointed out here before, Paul’s interest in these issues seems genuine, not opportunistic. Yes, Paul has taken some criticism for his high-profile visits to black colleges, a few of which resulted in some awkward moments. But Paul also made the case for restoring the voting rights of nonviolent felons at an Iowa GOP convention. Telling a crowd of conservative, overwhelmingly white Republicans in the 1st caucus state that we need to restore voting rights to a population of disproportionately black people drug offenders who are likely to vote Democratic isn’t political opportunism, it’s leadership.
On his website, Paul briefly explains why criminal justice reform has become a priority for him, noting the lessons he learned after trips to Ferguson, Detroit, Atlanta, and Chicago. He doesn’t get into specific policies he’d push as president, but he does list the bills he has already sponsored. Those include: –The REDEEM Act: A law aimed at helping nonviolent offenders (particularly juveniles) expunge their criminal records. It includes incentives for states to do the same.
–Justice Safety Valve Act: A law that would give judges more discretion over sentencing, reducing the effect of mandatory minimums.
–Civil Rights Voting Restoration Act: Would restore federal voting rights to all nonviolent offenders. The bill would also withhold prison fund to states that don’t do the same.
–RESET Act: Makes possession of small amounts of illicit drugs a misdemeanor, instead of a felony. It also eliminates the crack/powder cocaine disparity.
–FAIR Act: A bill to reform federal asset forfeiture. It would require that federal prosecutors show by “clear and convincing evidence” that the property was tied to a crime. It would also put forfeiture proceeds into the Treasury’s general fund and eliminate the DOJ’s asset forfeiture fund. It would eliminate the ability of police agencies in states that have passed forfeiture restrictions to get around those laws by partnering with federal law enforcement.
Paul hasn’t just talked about reform, he has sponsored legislation that would actually achieve it. Though his campaign site is less thorough and comprehensive than O’Malley’s, his record has already established his bonafides on these issues. It’s just too bad that he’s so quick to exploit a high-profile, admittedly awful crime to grandstand on immigration. That sort of demagoguing by politicians are how we got so many bad laws and harsh sentences in the first place.
The Also-Rans
Jim Webb
Jim Webb has been talking about criminal justice reform since his days in the Senate. In that he actually proposed reform legislation while he was a senator, Webb has also done more “walking the walk” than any candidate but Paul. So it’s not surprising that the issue is 1 of the 5 highlighted on Webb’s campaign site. What is surprising is that it only gets a paragraph, and that paragraph contains no policy proposals and no positions on reform bills now pending in Congress. Webb basically just makes a broad, non-specific argument that things are bad and need to be changed. That’s unfortunate, because he has been much more thoughtful and interesting about these issues in the past.
It’s clear that Webb gets it. But as he writes in the 1st line of his one paragraph, “This is not a political issue; it is a leadership issue.” That’s quite true. So lead. Tell us what needs to be changed, and how you’d change it.
Rick Perry
Perry makes no mention of criminal justice on his “Issues” page, nor does he discuss what he’d do as president. But he does talk about what he’s done in this area in his “Record” section. And despite Perry’s ugly grandstanding on the death penalty in the 2012 primaries, he does have some accomplishments to tout. Perry helped implement drug courts in Texas for 1st time offenders, an imperfect approach that is nonetheless better than incarceration. He also notes that the policy was about treating addiction as a disease, not as a crime – at least for 1st-timers. (Of course, the vast majority of people who use illicit drugs aren’t addicted and never get that way.) Perry also boasts about closing prisons in Texas without opening new ones. The very fact that a GOP primary candidate would find this something worth bragging about is a good indication of how much the debate has shifted.
Hillary Clinton
Despite the splash she made in her speech on criminal justice a few months ago, the issue doesn’t get prominent placement on her campaign site. Clinton’s policy proposals are roughly divided into what she calls “the 4 Fights.” Criminal justice is unintuitively lumped into the “Strengthening America’s Families” fight, and shows up at the very bottom of that page, under the heading “A balanced criminal justice system.” It’s about 500 words long.
Clinton hits some buzzwords – Ferguson, Charleston, Baltimore, mass incarceration – but there are few specific proposals. It’s more about vague generalizations. For example: “We will listen to law enforcement leaders and work with communities to prevent crime, rather than measuring success just by the number of arrests or convictions.”
Clinton is the only candidate whose campaign site addresses police militarization, although this too is vague.
We will ensure that federal funds for state and local law enforcement are used to bolster best practices, rather than to buy weapons of war that have no place on our streets.
The story is the same in the 2 paragraphs about drug addiction.
We must ensure that everyone understands that prescription drugs can be addictive and a gateway to other drugs. We must also give young people opportunities to pursue education, good jobs, and a future that does not need to be dulled or muted by the use of substances …
So she’s going to prevent young people from using drugs by giving the opportunities, good jobs, and a future. Well okay then. It’s too bad no one else thought of that. This is as close as she gets to a specific policy on drug treatment . . .
Yet, too many people who are addicted to prescription drugs, opiates, or other substances have no access to effective substance abuse treatment programs. We must work to ensure that everyone has access to these programs.
And it isn’t really all that close. How will we do that? And who is we?
The only specific policy Clinton endorses on her site are body cameras for police. Like O’Malley, Clinton doesn’t try to explain or atone for her own support for disastrous criminal justice policies over the years. Instead, we get vague platitudes.
Still, the mere fact that she’s emphasizing treatment over incarceration is, again, an illustration of how the debate has moved. Clinton’s site doesn’t mention sentencing, the death penalty, or a host of other issues. Yet paltry as it is, it’s still in the top tier.
Bernie Sanders
Sanders’s “Issues” page makes no mention of criminal justice at all. For the candidate widely described as a socialist, and who is probably well to the left of anyone else in the field (at least among the 2 major parties), discussion of criminal justice is surprisingly hard to find. I finally did a Google search for “incarceration” on the URL for Sanders’s site and found a a blog post about a speech he gave in Des Moines and a video and the transcript of a speech he gave to the National Urban League. The latter includes some discussion of police militarization, racial bias, incarceration, and root causes of crime. It also includes some vague policy positions – support for body cameras, “moving away” from police militarization, opposition to private prisons, investing in community policing. But it’s still pretty vague, and you have to go through some effort to find it. Sanders also tends to talk about incarceration by lamenting how few bankers and Wall Street traders are in prison, which is more about economic populism than about reforming the courts, cops, and prisons.
It all has the whiff of a candidate who was thrust into this discussion, rather than a candidate who took it up willingly.
Whisperers of Reform
Jeb Bush
Jeb Bush’s website doesn’t list criminal justice reform anywhere in its main sets of menus. The site doesn’t have an “Issues” section at all. After some poking around, I did find a speech Bush recently gave to the National Urban League. That speech included the following paragraph in which Bush does at least make some mention of reform:
“We didn’t lose sight of the ones who had missed their chance at a better life, or maybe even lost their way and landed in jail. In Florida, we didn’t want to fill prisons with non-violent offenders. So we expanded drug courts and prevention programs. I took the view – as I would as president – that real justice in America has got to include restorative justice. I opened the 1st faith-based prison in the United States and signed an executive order to promote the hiring of ex-offenders. In this country, we shouldn’t be writing people off, denying them a 2nd chance at a life of meaning. Many ask only for a chance to start again, to get back in the game and do it right – and as a country, we should say yes whenever we can.”
That’s at least something. Unfortunately, this was followed by a passage in which Bush boasted about increasing mandatory minimum sentences for other crimes. Bush then claims credit for presiding over a historic crime drop in Florida. But of course, this was a period over which crime was dropping all over the country. Bush said a few good things in his speech, but these issues don’t appear to be priorities for him.
Lincoln Chafee
While Chafee does include “protection of personal liberties” as one of his campaign priorities, the only issue on which he takes a specific position is “the wiretapping of our phones,” which he says is forbidden by the Fourth Amendment. (I presume he’s referring to the NSA wiretapping, and not all wiretapping in criminal investigations.) Chafee promises that, “I will never allow our liberties to be diminished.” I’m not sure what that means. In what context? He’ll allow no liberties to be diminished ever? Whose definition of “liberties?” Chafee also says he supports the First and Eighth Amendments. Bold!
Chafee’s site doesn’t address any other criminal justice issues.
Lyndsey Graham
According to his campaign site, Graham’s core principles are “Securing Our Nation,” “Securing Our Future,” and “Securing Our Values.” I don’t see criminal justice issues discussed on any of those pages. Searches of the site do turn up a couple of articles, however. In this editorial from the Des Moines Register, Graham criticizes mandatory minimum sentences, and says both prison reform and sentencing reform are an “absolute necessity,” adding, “We have too many people in jail, and there are other ways to deal with these crimes rather than just filling up the jails.”
Wait and See
John Kasich
At the moment, there is no “Issues” page, but the “Meet John” section includes a line about how Kasich has “transformed how Ohio approaches police-community relations.” A search of the site for “prison” turns up a George Will column about how Kasich eschews mandatory minimums and has embraced re-entry programs to prepare inmates for life on the outside. Kasich has implemented some interesting reforms in Ohio. He only announced a few weeks ago, so perhaps he’ll add more to his site in the coming weeks.
Carly Fiorina
Fiorina’s site has no “Issues” page only loose collections of statements and articles under the headings “News” and “Blog.” Searches for prison, jail, incarceration, and police turned up nothing. However, Fiorina has made some comments about decriminalizing drug addiction, and about the need to reduce mass incarceration, and about holding abusive police officers accountable. So the dearth of criminal justice on her website may be more due to the site’s poor design and overall lack of content than a reflection of Fiorina’s priorities.
Bobby Jindal
When I checked it, Jindal’s campaign homepage redirected me to a donation page . . . and it then stayed there. There was no way out. I did a few searches on the URL, however, and found several articles that are in theory posted somewhere on the site. The problem is that when you click on them, they bring up a 404 error. At least as of this writing, the only thing you can do on Jindal’s page is give him money.
On the plus side, one of the headlines suggests a story in which Jindal touts a program that “gives prisoners a chance.” But there are also articles in which Jindal boasts of signing bills to lengthen sentences for drug crimes. (Jindal did sign a bill that lengthens heroin sentences, but he also signed another that softens Louisiana’s harsh marijuana laws.) Another headline suggests he approved new sentences for crimes related to child pornography. Before we can learn much more, we may have to wait until Jindal gets enough donations to fund a working website.
Reform? What Reform?
Marco Rubio
Rubio’s “Issues” pages includes sections on Life, Cuba, Israel, ISIS, marriage, veterans, the Internet, and 2 sections on Iran, but nothing on criminal justice. A Google search for “incarceration” on his site turned up nothing. A search for “prisons” turned up speeches about Iran, ISIS, and a condemnation of Obama for releasing unconvicted prisoners at Guantanamo Bay.
Ted Cruz
The closest Ted Cruz’s site gets to anything resembling criminal justice are passages in which he boasts about being part of a court case that preserved the phrase “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance, suing to preserve the Texas Ten Commandments Monument, his participation in several Second Amendment lawsuits, his support for Houston pastors whose sermons had been subpoenaed by the city, and his defense of conservative groups that were allegedly targeted by the IRS. A search for “incarceration” on his site turned up little. A search on “prison” turned up a press statement condemning the deal with Iran and a National Review Online opinion piece listing “extended constitutional protections to prisoners of war on foreign soil” as an example of “judicial tyranny.”
Scott Walker
Walker’s site doesn’t have an “Issues” or “Record” or “Priorities” page. It’s mostly just short newsy clips about praise for Scott Walker. A search for “prison” brings up only this statement on Americans being held in Iran. A search for “incarceration” turned up nothing. Neither did searches for militarization, police, and jails. Given Walker’s record on these issues, perhaps that’s for the best.
Ben Carson
Topics on Carson’s “Issues” page include “Keep Faith in Our Society,” “Russia and Lessons Learned,” “Stand by Israel, Our Bulwark Middle East Ally,” and “Protecting Innocent Life.” The only topic remotely related to criminal justice is called, “Keep Gitmo Open.” Searches on jail, incarceration, and prison turn up nothing.
Chris Christie
There’s no mention of criminal justice on Christie’s “Issues” page. Odd for a candidate whose most newsworthy campaign bite of late was his promise to basically invade the state of Colorado to stop people from smoking pot. Site-specific searches of various criminal justice-related terms also turn up nothing. The only reference to these issues at all appears to be a photo of a police officer attending a Christie event at the the top of the page called, “Taking on the Tough Issues.”
Donald Trump
Not surprisingly, Donald Trump’s campaign site is mostly a testament to the prowess, success, and classiness of Donald Trump. Other than the trashing of immigrants, I see no discussion of any issues at all – just articles about how Trump is topping the polls, basking in praise from Ted Cruz, and issuing witty ripostes on Twitter. A search for “prison” turns up articles in which Trump bashes immigrants from Cuba and Mexico. A search for “incarceration” turns up an article in which trump bashes immigrants more generally. A search for “police” also turns up articles in which Trump bashes immigrants. That search did also turn up an interview with Anderson Cooper in which Trump criticized the police officer who arrested Sandra Bland. But he followed by telling Cooper, “I am a huge fan of the police. I think the police have to be given back power.”
Jim Gilmore
The former Virginia governor’s rudimentary campaign site has only one substantive page, and that outlines his economic plan. Searches on various criminal justice-themed terms produced no results.
George Pataki
The GOP’s other throwback candidate also mostly ignores criminal justice on his website. That’s too bad, because Pataki was in office when New York switched from incarcerating for low-level drug crimes to prioritizing treatment. The state’s prison population has plunged since 1999.
Of course, Pataki spent a good deal of his political capital fighting those reforms, and to this day he boasts of both reinstituting the death penalty and abolishing parole for violent offenders. Pataki also boasts more generally of his “tough on crime” policies, and takes credit for the drop in violent crime in New York that took place in part while he was in office. It would be interesting to hear him explain how that drop in crime happened even as the state was releasing drug offenders and closing prisons. Pataki’s site does link to an article in the Des Moines Register that touts him reaching out to minority voters, but the article makes no mention of criminal justice reform. The site also lists a Pataki appearance on MSNBC in which he chastises Rand Paul for the senator’s opposition to renewal of the PATRIOT Act.
Rick Santorum
Santorum’s priorities include “Fighting Radical Islam,” “Immigration Reform,” “Preserving Conservative Values,” and the Sanctity of Life,” but there’s no mention of criminal justice reform. The only remotely related issue is his promise to use the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division to make employers accommodate the religious practices of their employees. Searches for criminal justice themes did turn up 1 article in which Santorum lists incarceration among a number of things that are “limiting opportunities to rise,” but it comes in an article about Santorum’s plan to “reduce immigration by 25 %.”
The Retrograde
Mike Huckabee
Given that evangelicals like Chuck Colson were beating the path to prison reform long before it was chic, it’s a bit surprising that neither of the 2 openly evangelical candidates seems to have much interest in these issues. But while Rick Santorum’s site mostly ignores criminal justice, Mike Huckabee’s site reads as if he were running in 1991.
Under his “Record as Governor” page, Huckabee writes:
Law and order has always been one of my top priorities. The 2 people in this country he values the most are soldiers and police officers, because they are the only thing standing between our freedom and total anarchy.
Huckabee then boasts of “carrying out 16 executions,” which just seems kind of gross. He also boasts that he turned down 85 % of commutation requests. Huckabee here appears to be trying to compensate for 1 particularly unfortunate commutation in which the man whose sentence he waved went on to kill 4 police officers in 2009. Whether that particular granting of clemency was the right call at the time is open to debate, but in an era in which politicians, pundits, and activists from across the political spectrum are decrying the destructive nature of harsh sentences, boasting about his reluctance to show mercy is an odd thing to see from a candidate, particularly one is so open about his faith in a religion that purports to be about love and forgiveness. In any case, Huckabee’s stinginess with the commutation power isn’t even in the same league as our current president’s. Obama has denied 99.7 % of commutation requests.
A search for “crime” on Huckabee’s site turns up this article, in which he promises to prosecute attacks on people who oppose gay marriage as hate crimes. Searches for incarceration, prison, and jails produce nothing of significance.


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