By Christopher Zoukis
Along with bitter personal attacks and accusations of criminality, this year’s presidential campaign highlighted sharp differences in perspective and policy preferences between major party candidates Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. Before we begin to get too deep into speculation over how the newly elected president will proceed in these areas, it’s probably useful to review some of the major controversies the candidates dealt with the area of criminal justice.
Crime Rate: What Direction Is It Heading?
As the nominee of the party out of power (until he takes office in 2017), Republican Donald Trump could be expected to criticize incumbent Democrats’ record on crime, and he quickly seized on what he maintained was an “out of control” crime rate. In a bid to establish himself as the “law and order” candidate, he charged the administration had drastically reduced criminal enforcement. Hillary Clinton, on the other hand, defended the record of the Obama administration in fighting crime, even claiming in a July appearance at Columbia University that crime had reached “historic lows.”
Judging by the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s most recently issued crime statistics, however, there appears to be at least an element of truth in each candidate’s claims. The agency’s Uniform Crime Reporting System show a national 3.9 percent rise in violent crimes between 2014 and 2015, with a greater than 10 percent increase in murders, and even more extreme increases in Chicago and some other areas.
At the same time, however, the UCR system is far from perfect, since about 30 percent of police agencies opt not to send in their statistics, making comparisons inexact. Further, looking at longer periods than just a year-to-year comparison, crime rates have generally been declining, so an apparent recent spike may be just a tapering off long-term declines.
What Changes Should Be Made in Sentencing and Prison Policies?
Reducing sentences for drug offenses was a central feature of the Clinton campaign’s platform on crime, calling for cutting in half present-day mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug offenses, making retroactive legislation that reduced sentencing disparities for crack and powder cocaine, and no longer considering previous nonviolent drug convictions as plus factors in sentencing decisions. Despite his anti-crime speeches, Trump was far less specific on his proposals in the area.
The candidates also differed sharply on the issue of using private prisons for federal inmates: Clinton supported the Obama decision to phase them out for the Bureau of Prisons, while Trump indicated general support for federal prisons being privately owned and operated.
Ought Ex-Felons’ Voting Rights Be Restored?
Mirroring the controversy in Virginia, where Gov. Terry McAuliffe – the head of Hillary Clinton’s 2008 presidential campaign – sought to issue a blanket restoration of voting rights to ex-felons who had completed their sentences, candidate Trump called such proposals “crooked politics,” accusing Democrats of having political advantage as their real motive for seeking that change.
In contrast, the platform on which Hillary Clinton ran called not only for voting rights restoration, but also for “ban the box” legislation and a presidential executive order requiring federal contractors and employers not to screen out job applicants with criminal records.
Christopher Zoukis is the author of College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Co., 2014) and Prison Education Guide (Prison Legal News Publishing, 2016). He can be found online at ChristopherZoukis.com, PrisonEducation.com and PrisonLawBlog.com.