CLEVELAND—Over the last 24 hours, attendees at the Republican National Convention got two very different perspectives on Republican criminal justice policy.
On Tuesday morning, three Republican governors made a strong argument that their party was leading the way on criminal justice reform. Matt Bevin of Kentucky, Nathan Deal of Georgia, and Mary Fallin of Oklahoma addressed a crowded room of delegates and talked about reforms they had made in their states to reduce incarceration rates and help convicts get education and jobs. They stressed the importance of compassion toward inmates and emphasized the potential to work with Democrats.
“The point isn’t to punish people and hammer them and lock them up,” Bevin said. “This is not a partisan issue. This is a human issue.”
The night before, however, a series of speeches on how to “Make America Safe Again” set a very different tone. There wasn’t a word about tackling recidivism rates or diverting people from prison. Instead, Donald Trump’s hand-picked surrogates riled up the crowd with a fact-challenged portrait of America under a tsunami of crime.
“Neighborhoods have become more violent under [President Obama’s] watch,” said Darryl Glenn, a Senate candidate in Colorado. America faces “mayhem, murder, and destruction in our neighborhoods and on the streets,” added retired Army Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn.
This is the conundrum facing Republicans on criminal justice reform: While a number of GOP governors are leading the country in implementing smart policies, the party is about to nominate someone who prefers to talk about the need to crack down on lawlessness. “Drug dealers and gang members are given a slap on the wrist and turned loose on the street. This needs to stop,” the law enforcement policy page on Trump’s website states.
Asked in an MSNBC interview last year whether he supported criminal justice reform, Trump said, “No. I’m tough on crime. I mean, I’m a believer in ‘tough on crime’, I really am. You look at what’s going on in the inner cities right now, it’s unbelievable. Boy, it’s like the wild west.” Last week, groups representing more than 30,000 law enforcement officers criticized his stance in an open letter.
If Trump is elected president, his rhetoric suggests, he could undermine the emerging bipartisan consensus that America’s justice system incarcerates too many people and makes it too difficult for people getting out of prison to restart their lives.
The three governors focused on real-world policy solutions: Fallin explained how she was working to reduce mandatory minimum sentences and get prosecutors to charge more crimes as misdemeanors instead of felonies. Bevin talked about a bill he had passed that allows convicts to expunge their sentences, and spoke emotionally about his visits to prisons in his state. Deal discussed his administration’s new drug courts that are getting addicts help instead of sending them to jail, and stressed the importance of his new education and job training programs behind bars. (I wrote about Deal’s reforms in Georgia a couple months ago.)
“Republicans are not what many people would paint us to be—lock ‘em up, throw away the key,” said Deal, wearing a red tie with an elephant pattern.
While Trump hasn’t directly said whether he supports criminal justice reform efforts like those of the governors, the people he chose to speak on the big stage Monday night have opposed them. Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas has said that the U.S. should be incarcerating more people and has been one of the main Republicans blocking a criminal justice reform bill in Congress. Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke has accused conservatives who advocate for reducing incarceration of “cuddling up to criminals” and said that rehabilitation is “not something for the criminal justice system to do.”
The overriding theme of the night seemed to be fear—fear of terrorism, fear of immigrants, fear of criminals. “More than half of all Americans now worry a great deal about crime and violence, up consistently and dramatically from just a few years ago,” Clarke said.
While it’s true that Americans have a perception of rising crime, according to a Pew Research Center report, that perception is wrong. Violent crime dropped steadily from the early ’90s to 2014, the last year for which the FBI has data. Although murder rates have gone up in several American cities over the last two years, other cities have seen a corresponding drop in murder rates.
Pew Research Center
Suggesting that crime is through the roof is also basically the opposite of the message that criminal justice reformers want to portray. If voters understand that crime rates are near historic lows, they will be more likely to support reform efforts that reduce prison sentences, let some inmates out of prison early, and give convicts more services to help them get their lives on track.
You can also see the competing influences over criminal justice policy in the Republican Party platform, which was approved by delegates Monday afternoon. On one hand, it endorses “State and local initiatives that are trying new approaches, often called accountability courts… Their emphasis on restorative justice, to make the victim whole and put the offender on the right path, can give law enforcement the flexibility it needs in dealing with different levels of criminal behavior.” But only a few paragraphs away, it also declares that “mandatory minimum sentencing became an important tool for keeping [criminals] off the streets,” even though some Republican leaders have worked to decrease mandatory minimums.
The governors who spoke here Tuesday argued that Republicans were unfairly painted by the media as too tough on crime. “There is kind of this old-school idea that they’re the soft and loving people and we’re the hard on crime and tough people, and there are these two camps,” Bevin said. “That is so antiquated.”
In interviews, however, none of the three criticized Trump’s own statements on criminal justice or urged him to talk more about reforms. “It’s his agenda, he’s the one running for president,” Bevin told me.
Fallin and Deal said they hoped to talk to Trump about the importance of criminal justice reform. “It’s certainly something I will talk about with him,” Fallin said. “We certainly always stand ready and willing to provide him with information and data that shows that these reforms work,” added Deal.
Criminal justice reform could be a key Republican issue in national elections. There are few examples of government programs more deficient than our mass incarceration system, which spends billions on locking people up only to produce high recidivism rates. “You tell the average citizen that you’re gonna pay 18 to 19 thousand dollars a year to incarcerate a nonviolent individual in a prison, and they look at you like what’s wrong with you?” Deal said. It would be smart of Trump to embrace the reformers and include their policies in his campaign.
But with Trump at the head of the party, that looks unlikely. When it comes to criminal justice, his campaign looks to be more focused on instilling fear than looking for solutions.