Skip to main content

Sign up for our newsletter.

Quality journalism. Progressive values. Direct to your inbox.

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."

Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.

... We've had enough. The 1% own and operate the corporate media. They are doing everything they can to defend the status quo, squash dissent and protect the wealthy and the powerful. The Common Dreams media model is different. We cover the news that matters to the 99%. Our mission? To inform. To inspire. To ignite change for the common good. How? Nonprofit. Independent. Reader-supported. Free to read. Free to republish. Free to share. With no advertising. No paywalls. No selling of your data. Thousands of small donations fund our newsroom and allow us to continue publishing. Can you chip in? We can't do it without you. Thank you.

Dems Urge DOJ Antitrust Probe Into $43 Billion Discovery-WarnerMedia Merger

"Giant corporations must not be allowed to stomp out competition, put up barriers to enter the market, and continue to exclude Latinos from the media industry."

Jessica Corbett ·

'We Won't Stop Fighting,' Vow South African Activists After Judge OKs Shell Seismic Blasting at Sea

"We must do everything we can to undo the destructive colonial legacy of extractivism, until we live in a world where people and the planet come before the profits of toxic fossil fuel companies."

Brett Wilkins ·

Biden Continues Drilling Boom on Public Lands Despite Campaign Pledge, Analysis Shows

"The reality is that in the battle between the oil industry and Biden, the industry is winning."

Julia Conley ·

Big Oil Profits Surge to $174 Billion in 2021 Amid Rising Gas Prices: Report

"Americans looking for someone to blame for the pain they experience at the pump need look no further than the wealthy oil and gas company executives who choose to line their own pockets."

Kenny Stancil ·

Rights Groups Decry 'Farcical and Corrupt' Verdict as Myanmar's Suu Kyi Sentenced to Four Years in Prison

"There are many detainees without the profile of Aung San Suu Kyi who currently face the terrifying prospect of years behind bars simply for peacefully exercising their human rights."

Jake Johnson ·

Support our work.

We are independent, non-profit, advertising-free and 100% reader supported.

Subscribe to our newsletter.

Quality journalism. Progressive values.
Direct to your inbox.

Subscribe to our Newsletter.

Common Dreams, Inc. Founded 1997. Registered 501(c3) Non-Profit | Privacy Policy
Common Dreams Logo