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Prisoners in the recreation yard at San Quentin prison in California. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons/cc)

Democrats Targeted for Creating, and Now Ignoring, Mass Incarceration Disaster

'Democratic Party platforms haven't merely been silent; they have actually called for policies creating more imprisonment'

Nika Knight

A new petition released Tuesday calls on Democratic Party leadership to make ending mass incarceration a core part of the party platform.

"So far, both [parties] have fallen short," reads the petition created by non-partisan public policy institute the Brennan Center for Justice. "Even Democratic Party platforms haven't merely been silent; they have actually called for policies creating more imprisonment.""

"The statistics are stark: while the United States has 5 percent of the world's people, we are responsible for a quarter of its prisoners," the petition notes.

Until recently, Democratic leadership applauded so-called "tough-on-crime" legislation that produced the mass incarceration crisis the U.S. faces today, said Inimai Chettiar, director of the Brennan Center's Justice Program, and Ames Grawert, a counsel in the same program.

The petition is addressed to leaders of both major parties, but particularly calls out the Democratic Party for betraying its legacy of civil rights advocacy by promoting such "tough-on-crime" policies.

And ironically, as the Brennan Center notes, "the Republican Party is set to vote on a policy to reduce imprisonment at their convention," while the DNC has no such plans. "So where are the Democrats?" Chettiar and Grawert ask.

Critics have long pointed out Democrats' role in today's mass incarceration crisis: "Two terms of tough-on-crime Reagan and Bush Republicans added 72 new mandatory minimum statutes; Clinton’s two terms added 116," as author and broadcaster Laura Flanders noted last year.

Chettiar and Grawert summarize the history of Democratic Party's failed platforms on crime and incarceration:

In 1992, Democrats supported alternatives to incarceration, such as "community service and boot camps for first-time offenders." But four years later the platform went in the opposite direction. It praised mandatory "three-strikes-you're-out" laws, truth-in-sentencing provisions that limited earned early release, and “$8 billion in new funding to help states build new prison cells.”

At the turn of the century, the party still championed "tougher punishments" as a way to fix "an overburdened justice system that lets thugs off easy," and applauded federal funding for "new prison cells" as a major success story (a clear nod to the 1994 Crime Bill, which paid states to increase imprisonment).

More recently, in 2008 and 2012, the DNC approved language supporting "local prison-to-work programs" aimed at "making citizens safer and saving the taxpayers money," and noting the importance of "fight[ing] inequalities in our criminal justice system." But neither platform made any mention of sentencing reform, or reducing the number of criminal laws, even as the U.S. incarceration rate topped the world and some states reversed course on their "tough-on-crime" policies.

Times may have changed, the petition notes: this primary season, both Democratic presidential candidates have called for an end to mass incarceration—although many see legislation passed by Hillary Clinton's husband, former president Bill Clinton, as largely responsible for the crisis, while Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders has in fact been calling for a stop to mass incarceration since those policies were introduced in the 1990s:

"The consensus to reduce unnecessary imprisonment has arrived," Chettiar and Grawert say. "But we will never see true reform until Democrats provide a solid left flank, so that compromise lands at the center, instead of to the right."


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