Even though it now looks like Americans will be deprived the drama of a contested Republican convention, the gathering in Cleveland could hold at least one surprise.
The Republicans are set to vote on an RNC resolution to reduce mass incarceration. The measure asks for “reforms for nonviolent offenders at the state and federal level” and urges “state legislators and Congress to…provide substance abuse treatment to addicts, emphasize work and education, and implement policies that cut costs while obtaining better outcomes.”
Finally, Democrats may say, Republicans have woken up to mass incarceration as a 21st-century civil-rights struggle, joining what has for years been a progressive fight.
Not so fast. If the Republican Party makes criminal justice reform a priority, they’ll be the first major party to do so, ever. Democrats need to catch up. Adding ending mass incarceration to their own platform would mark a significant step, boldly breaking with their past politics.
So what have the Democrats said about criminal justice?
Recent Democratic platforms haven’t merely been silent; they have actually called for policies creating more imprisonment, and then applauded the result. Mentions of progressive alternatives are hard to find.
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 US incarceration rate topped the world and some states reversed course on their “tough-on-crime” policies.