The very notion of prison reform is a divisive topic within the United States. It’s hardly a surprise, then, that even within the relatively cohesive Democratic party, there’s a fair range of opinions. Many politicians still consider the topic a political third rail entirely, one to be avoided at any cost. Why? Well, depending on the notion one carries of prison reform a politician could potentially open themselves up to the accusation of being soft on crime. Regardless of whether this label is accurate or not, such an assertion can be used to great effect against a political candidate (either in primary battles or against an opposition candidate). It can be a dangerous prospect for a politician to take on, and yet we’re seeing some efforts to do exactly that from both parties. Still, it’s a complex issue with an array of concerns. The vast prison population within the United States tends to be the starting point most sides recognize as a uniting cause. That said, the divisions become far more marked when considering particulars, such as: thoughts on lighter sentencing and early release for non-violent offenders, views on the War on Drugs, controversy and division over privatized prisons, and the threats and impacts on individual communities. Clearly – this is no simple issue. Still – let’s try and explore, in a brief and concise effort, Democratic views on Prison Reform.
Again – it’s worth stressing the importance of variance within the party on most aspects of prison reform. There are commonalities and shared traits, but not universals. The point of value in assessing any individual politician stands in checking where their views and votes align, not their party affiliation. That said – party affiliation is generally an extremely telling indicator, so let us proceed.
Number of People Incarcerated
Let’s start with the basic point. The Washington Post pulled quotes from both Hillary Clinton and Rand Paul to highlight rare consensus on the importance of the number of people presently incarcerated in the United States. For our purposes, let’s focus on Clinton, who stated “It’s a stark fact that the United States has less than 5 percent of the world’s population, yet we have almost 25 percent of the world’s total prison population. The numbers today are much higher than they were 30, 40 years ago despite the fact that crime is at historic lows.”
Now – while many may doubt the accuracy of Clinton’s remark – remember that Rand Paul was quoted citing the same statistic and the Washington Post has cited validation of their figures. While the United States is the world’s superpower and the country leading the free world, we’re also imprisoning an overwhelmingly disproportional percentage of the world’s prison population. This is concerning on two fronts: in that it implies we are over incarcerating (a moral concern) and that we are diminishing our ability to speak effectively as the leader of the free world (a concern based in international relations). Regardless of which carries more weight in one’s mind, the immediacy of this problem remains clear and, for most, undeniable.
Proposed Solutions to Overincarceration
One solution being offered is to provide lighter sentencing and to consider early release for certain nonviolent offenders. The logic here is fairly straightforward: if our prison population is too large, we should act to reduce it. Clearly, facing a choice between considering a violent or nonviolent offender, the nonviolent would be the favored choice for potential release. Additionally, by reducing the severity of sentencing for certain offenses we can work in advance to limit the rates of incarceration. While many, likely most, Democrats and progressives do favor this methodology, concerns remain for the implementation and blowback. California stands as a recent example of this type of prison reform in action, and some Californian cities are seeing spikes in crime that are being attributed to these very reforms
Incarceration and the War on Drugs
While many liberals and Democrats are in favor of reducing sentencing for certain nonviolent offenders, opinion can be far more divided when it comes to the War on Drugs. While only a very small number within the Democrats’ ranks would advocate for a complete end to the War on Drugs, there seems to be a true sense of potential unity with regards to marijuana. And, in truth, here we’ve seen a shift in opinion across both sides of the political spectrum. A multitude of states have legalized medicinal use, and recreational use is slowly finding footholds in a handful of states. The question is being raised, in turn, of how well we can justify incarcerating significant numbers of people for using a substance that is rapidly finding legal footing (to varying degrees) across the country. And, again, while the question has less certain footing among Democrats than some causes, it has found proponents among Republicans to bolster the total numbers in favor. Here there seems to be a liberal majority in favor, but a lack of will from politicians on the national stage. To draw from Mark Stern’s coverage of a CBS poll for support (published April 20th):
“A CBS poll released on Thursday demonstrates the astonishing popularity of legalization across the country. According to the poll, 61 percent of Americans support legalizing recreational use, while 88 percent support legalizing medicinal cannabis. Further, 71 percent of Americans oppose federal intervention in states that have legalized some form of marijuana. Support for legal weed is particularly high among Democrats and young people: 68 percent of Democrats support legalizing recreational marijuana, while 92 percent support legalizing the substance for medicinal use. And 3 in 4 adults under the age of 35 favor full legalization.”
Privatization of Prisons
The use of privatized prisons remains a far more inflammatory topic on the front of prison reform, with the general Democratic and liberal response being increasingly negative. The benefits most often touted are the cost efficiency and savings for taxpayers, which do certainly carry value. However, the concern many liberals raise in response is that it incentivizes an industry to lobby for tougher sentencing to keep their businesses running. Additionally – there are concerns regarding the degree of oversight and the humane treatment of prisoners, with documented incidents providing evidence of abuses. While there isn’t necessarily unity in this cause, the growing response from Democrats tends to be one of distrust and disgust with regards to privatizing prisons.
Ah, but then we come full circle back to the concern always faced when attempting to release prisoners early and ease sentencing for certain offenses: blowback. As cited earlier, some Californian cities have found increases in crime in the wake of early releases for nonviolent offenders. The question raised must then be: what is the proper solution? How do we avoid increasing the danger to the general public and the workload (and danger!) for the brave officer patrolling our streets? The best answer presently being offered by leadership among the Democratic Party tends to be limited efforts at easing nonviolent sentencing. Perhaps the better question looking forward is what to expect in terms of policy proposals from the next prominent figure to rise within the Democratic Party. For many, eyes turn to Cory Booker and Elizabeth Warren on that front.
- Yes, U.S. locks people up at a higher rate than any other country – The Washington Post
- Did California prison reform lead to an increase in crime? – Fox News
- Democrats, Listen to the Resistance. Legalize Weed. – Slate
- This notorious private prison may soon reopen under Trump – Vice News
- Republican Views On Crime
- Republican Views on the Prison System
- Democratic Views on Drugs
- Democratic Views On Crime
- Republican Views on Drugs
- Democratic Views on the Death Penalty
- Donald Trump on Marijuana
- Republican Views on the Death Penalty
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- Republican Views On Global Warming