One of the most remarkable features of the political landscape in 2015 has been the durability of the bipartisan consensus around the need to reform America’s criminal justice system. Despite widespread civil unrest and even an uptick in murder rates in some major metropolitan areas, a substantial number of Democrats and Republicans continue to agree on broad reforms to the sentencing guidelines for non-violent drug offenders. Anything beyond that gets a little sticky, and Democrats are likely to use Republican recalcitrance to go further on this issue as an election year wedge. The party’s dependence on keeping the GOP’s minority vote share low suggests that Democrats will be tempted to accuse Republicans of supporting only the least controversial criminal justice reforms. Democrats, however, have begun to sound more than a little schizophrenic on this issue themselves. Their efforts to pander to the appetites of the far-left constituencies under the party’s tent should make Americans think twice about the party’s commitment to the fair application of justice.
From the start of her campaign, the Democratic Party’s presumptive presidential nominee, Hillary Clinton, has used the issue of criminal justice reform to assuage fears among liberal voters that she would govern like her husband: as a centrist. Clinton has been critical of the 42nd President’s approach to crime and justice. In April, she noted that she would end the “era of mass incarceration” over which Bill Clinton presided. Though you would not know it from the coverage of her remarks, that message was complicated when Clinton came out against the foundational notion of presumed innocence – at least, when it comes to rape.
“To every survivor of sexual assault…You have the right to be heard,” Clinton wrote in September. “You have the right to be believed. We’re with you.” Months elapsed with this non-sequitur ringing in conservatives’ ears before someone finally asked the obvious: “Would you say that about Juanita Broaddrick, Kathleen Willey, and/or Paula Jones?” asked an audience member at a recent town hall. “Should we believe them as well?”
The questioner was no reporter, of course. Journalists seem to think this line of questioning untoward, and the fact that this town hall participant mispronounced Broaddrick’s name suggests it was a planted question. That does not invalidate the premise, nor does it render this line of inquiry prejudiced. What’s more, it clearly forced Clinton into a corner and compelled her to issue a contradictory verdict: “Well, I would say that everybody should be believed at first until they are disbelieved based on evidence,” Clinton said.
The follow-ups are obvious. Are there other crimes Clinton finds so heinous that she would give up on the cornerstone of Western jurisprudence? Or is rape a special case? Clinton would surely issue a meandering response to these questions designed to evade the real answer. The most aggressive and, thus, influential elements of the modern feminist left regard even the quest for supporting evidence in a case involving sexual assault to be a form of “rape shaming” or “denialism.” That’s why so many decrying the invented epidemic of “rape culture” in American colleges oppose the prosecution of those cases in anything other than on-campus tribunals. But criminal justice reform advocates should wonder where the limiting principle is here? This isn’t the pursuit of justice blind to the identities of accuser and accused.
Similarly, Democrats have taken the opportunity of the ISIS-connected atrocities in Paris and San Bernardino to relight the torch they carry for gun control – any gun control – regardless of its efficacy. The latest bizarre effort to capitalize on bloodshed comes in the form of the seemingly defense-minded initiative that proposes that people who end up on the FBI’s terrorist watch list should not be allowed to purchase a gun. Common sense, right? Except that the Democratic proposal, championed primarily by outgoing Senate Democratic Minority Leader Harry Reid, would strip American citizens of their Second Amendment rights without any due process.
Advocates of this proposal are quick to note that it was first supported by the Bush administration in 2007, but it went no further than the proposal stage in anticipation of the roadblock it would encounter in the form of a Democrat-led Congress. Democrats and civil libertarians had good reason to fear the excesses of the watch list; it is designed to be a catchall and not an early warning system. “In 2013 alone, 468,749 watch-list nominations were submitted to the National Counterterrorism Center,” The Huffington Post’s Nick Wing reported in 2014. “It rejected only 1 percent of the recommendations.”
“Critics say the system is bloated and imprecise, needlessly sweeping up thousands of people while simultaneously failing to catch legitimate threats, like Boston Marathon bomber Tamerlan Tsarnaev,” the report added.
The watch list continues to balloon as do threats, but the matter of its scope remains as serious a concern as it was when Democrats used to be worried about it. “Inspector General Glenn A. Fine said its management by the Terrorist Screening Center (TSC) ‘continues to have significant weaknesses,’ producing a high error rate and a slow response to complaints from citizens,” the Washington Post reported in 2007. “In an examination of 105 records, for example, the auditors found that 38 percent of the records contained errors or inconsistencies that the TSC’s own quality-assurance efforts had not found.” Democrats’ concerns with the terrorism watch list haven’t been addressed, but they have been subordinated to the potential political benefits that might be conferred on the party that demagogues the issue of firearm access for citizens who have never been indicted or even implicated in a crime.
Democrats are fortunate in that the mainstream press is unlikely to highlight any of these inconsistencies on matters relating to criminal justice, but that does not mean that they are immune to criticism on the matter. When Hillary Clinton’s party presents itself to voters as the party most likely to reform the justice system, Republicans would do well to cite these issues and ask voters if justice is really what Democrats have in mind.