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Crime and politics

As Chris Christie never tires of telling us, he's a former Federal prosecutor.  He was appointed in 2001, and despite the fact that he had little prior experience in criminal law and none in Federal court, he was, by all accounts, a very good District Attorney.  And he's got a DA's attitude - at least, DA's from that era - toward the drug war, too.  Twenty-three states have legalized marijuana use, either medicinal or complete, but sale of marijuana is still a Federal crime.  The position of the Obama administration is that it will not enforce marijuana laws in states which permit it.  That won't be the position of a Christie administration:

Last April, New Jersey's governor told Hugh Hewitt: "I will crack down and not permit it....Marijuana is an illegal drug under federal law, and the states should not be permitted to sell it and profit from it." During a town hall meeting in New Hampshire last July, Christie offered a warning to cannabis consumers in Colorado: "If you're getting high in Colorado today, enjoy it. As of January 2017, I will enforce the federal laws."

The article in the link gives a pretty good rundown of the positions of the Republican candidates on the issue.  The bottom line is that only Rubio comes close to Christie's position, and his answer was sufficiently muddled - and calculatingly so - that even if Rubio were to emulate Christie in policy, he certainly would not emulate him in passion. 

That there would be any controversy about this issue in a party which portrays itself as the conservator of states' rights is a mystery to me.  The rest of the candidates have indeed said they'd leave it up to the states.

A bigger mystery is that this is the only crime issue the Republican candidates are talking about.  The big discussion in that area centers around sentencing reform, with the Sentencing Reforms and Corrections Act working its way through the Senate.  The bill is an effort to reduce America's prison population, the highest in the world, by substantially reducing penalties for mostly non-violent drug crimes.  It's run into some criticism from conservatives for its "soft-on-crime" approach, and just last week the bill's provision to reduce the mandatory minimum penalty under the Armed Career Criminal Act from fifteen years to ten years was scuttled.  (The ACCA imposes that additional penalty on those who use a gun in a crime after having had three prior violent or drug offenses.)

The only Republican candidate with a strong pro-reform position was Rand Paul, who dropped out last week.  Ted Cruz has spoken out against the SRCA, and while John Kasich hasn't talked about the issue, his performance in Ohio, where he pushed for and signed HB 86, probably indicates he'd be receptive to the bill.  Ben Carson, Chris Christie, Jeb Bush, and Donald Trump haven't addressed it either.  (In fact, the only time The Donald has even mentioned criminal justice as an issue is in the context of bashing illegal immigrants.  And his recent statement that "every single one" of the 6,000 inmates released by Obama last October "will be back selling drugs" doesn't indicate a likelihood that he'd be willing to reduce drug offender sentences.)  To what should be no one's surprise, Rubio has straddled the fence here, too - at one point lauding the "pressing need for a thorough review of our entire criminal code," at another cautioning that "any reductions in sentences for drug crimes should be made with great care."

The Democratic candidates are more open for reform.  George McGovern Bernie Sanders has promised that America's position as the world's leading incarcerator will end by the time his first term does, although how he proposes to accomplish that as president is anyone's guess, given that Federal prisons are responsible for only 13% of the inmate population; releasing all of them would reduce the prison population from 2.2 million to 2 million. 

Hillary Clinton is on board with sentencing reform, although her cred is tarnished by the fact that she was a champion for tougher sentencing when her husband was president.  In fact, he tried to get to the right of the Republicans on crime, taking visible leave from the campaign in 1992 to go back to Arkansas to sign the death warrant for Ricky Ray Vector, who was so mentally damaged that on the night of his execution, just before the New Hampshire primary, he chose to save the dessert from his last meal "for later," and told prison officials he planned to vote for Clinton in November.  The Clintons' "tough on crime" stance culminated in the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, which resulted in sending more people to prison than Reagan or either of the Bushes managed to do.

Another issue which has gone AWOL in the campaign discussion is the Supreme Court.  The next president could wind up putting four people on the Court, but that's received little mention from the candidates, and then only in the context of social issues, like gay marriage and abortion.  That's somewhat surprising, given the parlous state of race relations in the country, and crime having served as good dog-whistle politics on that issue, as shown by Dick Nixon's "law and order" 1968 campaign and the prominent role played by Willie Horton twenty years later.

But Bill Clinton notwithstanding, the Bush I - Dukakis campaign was the last one where crime played a central role.  There's not much to indicate that things will change this time around.

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