When the first George Bush interjected Willie Horton into 1988 the presidential election, blatantly stoking fears of crime and race; and when the first Clinton presidential candidate, Bill, departed the campaign trail to oversee an execution in his home state of Arkansas, being tough on crime was a staple of presidential politics.

Crime as a hot button issue began in 1964 with Barry Goldwater. The GOP nominee for President introduced the concept of crime as a divisive, fear mongering issue and America has never been the same.

When Richard Nixon was making his second bid for President in 1968 the Civil Rights Act had passed, riots had erupted in cities across the country after the murder of Martin Luther King, Jr., and murder rates had increased 50 percent since 1950.

Race relations were tenuous, at best, and Nixon knew it. Crime control became a surrogate for race control. And every man and woman in America is paying for it, in more ways than one.

During the 1980s, drug laws became more and more onerous. Ronald Reagan introduced draconian mandatory minimum sentences and even harsher drug penalties. For instance, the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 created much harsher sentences for the use of crack cocaine, popular in predominately African American urban neighborhoods, as opposed to powder cocaine, popular in more affluent suburbs.

When George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton made their crime-fighting bona fides know through campaigning and governing--Clinton’s 1994 crime bill is still reverberating through the criminal justice system--crime disappeared as an issue in national politics . . . until now.

Overburdened prisons and resulting costs are unsustainable. Policymakers nationwide spent more than $60 billion on incarceration in 2015.

Mounting costs and racial disparities have made crime an issue in 2016?

Texas Senator Ted Cruz, one of three remaining GOP candidates for President, has called for a reevaluation of “draconian mandatory minimum sentences.” He also put blame on prosecutors and plea bargaining for unfairly pressuring the innocent to plead guilty.

John Kasich is the governor of Ohio. His recent primary win in his home state has renewed interest in his work on reform in Ohio. Kasich created a community-police advisory panel on reform. The panel came up with a series of recommendations including limiting the use of deadly force only in response to an imminent threat to life and requiring police to utilize body cameras.

Donald Trump, the GOP frontrunner, has turned the drive for reform on its head. He has taken the old school approach to crime and politics. His position can be described as “over the top on crime.” Nothing illustrates this more than his ardent support for the death penalty and disappoint with the manner in which it is carried out, “My only complaint is that lethal injection is too comfortable a way to go.”

Democrat Bernie Sanders appears to be the anti-Trump on criminal justice reform, “[W]e need major reforms in our broken criminal justice system . . . it makes a lot more sense to me to be investing in jobs and education for our young people than in more and more jails.”

Hillary Clinton has been an advocate for reform, although saddled at times with the results of her husband’s 1994 crime bill. She said last year, “you cannot talk about smart policing and reforming the criminal justice system if you also don’t talk about what’s needed to provide economic opportunity; better educational chances for young people; more support to families so they can do the best jobs they are capable of doing to help support their own children.”

There is a silver lining to this raucous and, at times, violent election year. Just four years ago, talk of criminal justice reform during a presidential campaign would have been a nonstarter.

— Matthew T. Mangino is of counsel with Luxenberg, Garbett, Kelly & George P.C. His book The Executioner’s Toll, 2010 was released by McFarland Publishing. You can reach him at www.mattmangino.com and follow him on Twitter @MatthewTMangino

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