Bozelko: resist dichotomies on criminal justice
Former Vice President Joe Biden surprised people Aug. 11 when he announced that he chose Sen. Kamala Harris - the former attorney general of California - as his running mate.
It was puzzling. The summer delivered unprecedented mass protests of the criminal legal system. Biden’s been called an “architect of mass incarceration” who credited himself with shepherding the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 - or, as many call it, the 1994 Crime Bill, which was, according to the New York Times “essentially a catchall tough-on-crime bill.” Harris is a prosecutor who’s at least labeled as someone who used 1994 Crime Bill policies to lock people up.
More than a few folks called them a “cop ticket.”
Students for Trump tweeted: “While President @realDonaldTrump has continually fought FOR criminal justice reform in America throughout his first 4 years, Kamala Harris has a history of fighting against criminal justice reform as California’s AG...”
Dichotomies are seductive. They’re so easy, clean. It’s too bad they’re so rarely accurate.
Criminal justice reform is probably the one issue where the two tickets are pretty much tied. That means it’s where the real campaigning will happen over the next few months. Prepare for many comparisons of FIRST STEP Act - President Donald Trump’s 2018 signature prison overhaul - versus the 1994 Crime Bill.
During primary season, Biden’s record on criminal justice was opened like Trump’s Twitter app - multiple times per day - even though he embraced decarceration. Detractors claimed he had essentially caused mass incarceration and his platform was more penance than policy.
But that’s not entirely true. The 1994 Crime Bill’s exact role in creating the density of prisons and jails is debatable - states were already enacting laws that increased prison populations before Biden’s crime law, according to the Council on Criminal Justice. And Biden has apologized for any unforeseen consequences of his zealous championing of the law that has dominated criminal justice policy debates since Hillary Clinton ran in 2016. It was her husband’s John Hancock that finalized the law.
But we can’t deny that the FIRST STEP Act turned out to be a decent bet. To date, thousands of deserving people have come home under President Trump’s criminal justice law. In some ways, it was an official blow to what the 1994 Crime Bill was trying to achieve. While there was one very serious instance of reoffending, there’s been no crime wave from that decarceration.
But analysis of Trump’s record can’t end there. His Department of Justice has been credibly accused of thwarting the implementation of the same act he uses as criminal justice bona fides by seeking to keep inmates who qualified for discharge under the new law. Many worthy petitions for compassionate release because of the COVID-19 risk inside prisons have been ignored. And there’s that pesky matter of incarcerating immigrant children and separating them from their parents.
For many voters, that a couple thousand inmates got their freedom probably won’t outweigh the harm wrought by the Trump administration. Nor will any mea culpa from the Biden-Harris team; the public questions the convenience of these apols.
At their virtual convention. Democrats had their chance to separate themselves from the past that will inevitably be resurrected the next few months; I’m not sure that they did that. Of all the caucuses at the DNC, none was dedicated to prison reform even though it’s promised in the official party platform. The GOP is next, and they’ve just copied and pasted their 2016 promises. There’s no word on caucuses or what Republican delegates plan on discussing during their virtual convention that began Monday and continues through thursday (Aug. 24-27).
When both conventions are over, I predict we’ll endure two months of each side indicting its opponent’s record on criminal justice and othering the rival party. The campaigns will frame the November decision as whether voters should choose the candidate who takes people’s freedom or the one who gives it back.
And, for many people, that question still won’t narrow it down.
Disclosure: Chandra Bozelko was an alternate at-large delegate with the Connecticut Democratic Party at the Democratic National Convention for the Biden-Harris campaign.
Chandra Bozelko writes the award-winning blog Prison Diaries. You can follow her on Twitter at @ChandraBozelko and email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.