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August 14, 2013 10:27 AM Democrats and Mandatory Minimums

By Ed Kilgore

At Ten Miles Square today, Stanford University’s Keith Humphreys reminds us that the mandatory minimum sentencing practices that Eric Holder is proposing to end-run or modify were not solely the product of tough-on-crime conservatives Republicans:

Many liberals supported the transformation of criminal justice penalties that occurred in the 1980s, with Tip O’Neil being the highest-profile example. Part of this had to do with many of them representing urban areas full of residents who were sick of crime. But it also had to do with many liberals’ instinctive distrust of governmental discretion. Such people argue — not without reason — that if you let judges determine sentences, some of them will hand out stiffer punishments to minority criminals than they do to white criminals convicted of the same offense. Expect at least a few leftists who gain a platform in the coming debate about Obama’s sentencing reforms to raise this concern.

More common, however, were Democratic pols who supported mandatory minimums and the whole “War on Drugs” meme simply as a defensive political tactic to immunize themselves against conservative attacks. I remember graphically (because I worked for him at the time) when Zell Miller, who (lest we forget) had an early reputation as a reasonably progressive “populist,” came out for a “Two Strikes and You’re Out” law during the run-up to his difficult 1994 re-election campaign as Georgia governor. True, the provision only applied to offenders convicted of violent crimes, but the gambit was typical of the tendency of many Democrats to adopt mandatory minimum schemes to avoid being outflanked on the right on the crime issue.

But it’s not like there were no dissents from the trend. The whole “restorative justice” movement of the 1990s, which was one of the major contributors to the widely adopted community policing strategies that became a standard talking point and policy anchor for the Clinton administration, was intensely opposed to mandatory minimum sentencing (and for that matter, the abolition of parole options). As it happens, I wrote a crime policy chapter for the centrist Progressive Policy Institute’s 1997 collection of policy ideas (entitled, in the style of the moment, Building the Bridge) that was in many respects an extended rant against mandatory minimums and the whole maximum incarceration trend. But this never became a popular theme for Democratic pols, most of whom preferred not to talk about crime policy at all on the theory that it was “enemy turf.” Terrible things can happen when whole areas of public policy are all but forgotten about or treated as objects for simplistic sloganeering.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

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