Washington Week

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Trump vs. Clinton: Criminal Justice Reform

By Jenna Goff and Joan Greve
Washington Week Fellows

2.3 million Americans currently live behind bars -- that’s 25% of the world’s prisoners -- yet so far in 2016 violent crimes are up sharply compared to last year. Congress has proposed bipartisan legislation to reform components of the criminal justice system such as shortening the sentences of nonviolent drug offenders and easing the path of former convicts back into society, yet lack of action suggests that nothing will pass before the election.

Where do Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton currently stand on issues such as police brutality and mass incarceration? We take a look at the candidates’ positions on criminal justice reform.


Police violence

Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump have taken starkly different approaches in responding to police-involved killings during the presidential campaign. Trump, for the most part, has chosen to defend the police.

In a campaign video on the subject of law enforcement respect posted in February, Trump stated that the police in our country are widely underappreciated. “Sure, there’ll be a bad apple,” he said. “And it ends up on the news for two weeks, and everybody hates the police. The fact is: they do an incredible job.” He has continually stressed the importance of respecting the police.

Trump did, however, express his sympathy for African Americans Alton Sterling and Philando Castile following what he called their “senseless, tragic deaths” in police-involved shootings in July. But he has not yet expanded on what exactly he would do to prevent similar events from occurring.

Clinton has offered more details to combat police violence. She seeks to strengthen the bonds of trust between communities and police through a number of measures. She has pledged to set guidelines to determine when deadly force is warranted and when it is not, and provide comprehensive training in methods that do not include force but de-escalate situations. Clinton will acknowledge that bias in implicit in many police departments and support legislation and funding to tackle racial profiling. She pledged her support to the Black Lives Matter movement, which advocates for fair and equal treatment of African Americans by police and the entire criminal justice system, after the death of Castile in July.

In an effort to increase transparency, Clinton has also emphasized increasing the collection and reporting of national data when it comes to crime and officer-involved shootings. 


Body cameras

Body cameras are one of the most frequent policy proposals when it comes to reducing police violence. Footage from body cameras has already been prominently used to review and scrutinize police decisions during confrontations with potential suspects.

While both party nominees support the use of body cameras, they split over the question of whether such technology should be mandatory for police departments. Trump has said that individual departments should make the determination for themselves because, as he told the Guardian during an October interview, “different police departments feel different ways.”

He did still express support for federal funding of body cameras: “Some of these departments have plenty of money, and some of them don’t. And if they like the idea of the cameras, they need federal funding.” Trump explained that police departments can be a positive for its officers because, “They’re accused of things and oftentimes you see the body cameras and, all of the sudden, they didn’t do anything wrong.”

During an address to a Columbia University audience last April, Clinton used the same logic to defend body cameras, but she went one step further and recommended their use in all U.S. police departments. She said that their standardized use “will improve transparency and accountability. It will help protect good people on both sides of the lens." Clinton’s campaign platform also promises that her administration will pursue more body cameras nationwide by “providing federal matching funds to make body cameras available to every police department in America.”


Mass incarceration

Ending mass incarceration is at the forefront of Clinton’s criminal justice reform platform. She focuses most on decreasing the sentences of low-level, nonviolent drug offenders. Clinton would allow current nonviolent prisoners to seek fairer sentences and cut the minimum mandatory sentencing for drug offenders in half. Additionally, she would reroute federal resources to fight violent crime rather than simple marijuana possession.

Clinton seeks to emphasize treatment and rehabilitation over incarceration for nonviolent, drug-related and first-time offenders. In an April speech, she stressed the need to “improve access to high-quality treatment for substance abuse, inside and outside the prison system, because drug and alcohol addiction is a disease, not a crime — and we need to treat it as such.” In an effort to keep youths out of prison, Clinton would also dismantle the school-to-prison pipeline by providing $2 billion in funding to social and emotional support interventions in schools.

Finally, Clinton would end the privatization of prisons to cut “private industry incentives that may contribute—or have the appearance of contributing—to over-incarceration.”

Trump, on the other hand, has not released many specifics on how he would handle mass incarceration. However, many comments he has made seem at odds with recent bipartisan efforts to reform the system. In his nominating speech at the RNC in July, Trump slammed “this administration's rollback of criminal enforcement.” Portraying himself as the “law and order” candidate who will be “tough on crime,” Trump pledged to combat the crime and lawlessness that threatens American communities.

At an August rally in Kissimmee, Florida, Trump reinstated his tough stance on crime by critiquing President Obama’s commutations of sentences of drug offenders. "Some of these people are bad dudes," he said. "These are people out walking the streets. Sleep tight, folks."


Racial profiling

Is profiling a racist practice that harms minorities or a useful crime prevention tactic? Clinton and Trump’s differing answers to that question provide the foundation for their racial profiling policy.

Trump has actively encouraged the practice of profiling, particularly to prevent possible acts of terror. Following Saturday’s bombing in Manhattan, Trump said in a Monday phone interview with “Fox & Friends,” “Our local police, they know who a lot of these people are. They’re afraid to do anything about it because they don’t want to be accused of profiling.”

The Republican nominee went on to praise Israel’s profiling tactics, a point that Trump also brought up during a June interview with CBS’ “Face the Nation.” Just after the Orlando shooting, Trump pointed to Israel as a nation that did profiling “successfully” before adding, “And I hate the concept of profiling but we have to start using common sense and we have to use our heads."

But Clinton’s criminal justice policy emphasizes the need to eradicate racial profiling as a police tactic. As the Democratic nominee said last April after the funeral of Freddie Gray, who died while in the Baltimore Police Department’s custody, “There is something profoundly wrong when African-American men are far more likely to be stopped by the police and charged with crimes and given longer prison terms than their white counterparts.”

Her platform calls for ending this practice by enacting laws at the local and federal levels that would prohibit racial profiling, particularly when “conducting routine or spontaneous investigatory activities."


Death penalty

Despite their many disagreements on criminal justice reform, both Clinton and Trump agree with the majority of Americans in their support of the death penalty. But the two nominees have struck different tones on the policy--going back decades.

Long before beginning his political career, Trump had a fiery response to the highly publicized 1989 rape of a female jogger in Central Park. The Manhattan businessman took out four full-page ads in New York newspapers to demand the death penalty against the five apprehended suspects, all young black and Hispanic men between the ages of 14 and 16 who were later cleared of the crime. Trump wrote in one such ad, “I want to hate these muggers and murderers. They should be forced to suffer and, when they kill, should be executed for their crimes.”

Although he has abandoned some of that strong language since starting his campaign, Trump restated his support of the death penalty during a December event with the New England Police Benevolent Association. He told the gathered association members, "One of the first things I'd do in terms of executive orders, if I win, will be to sign a strong, strong statement that will go out to the country, out to the world, that anybody killing a policeman, a policewoman, a police officer, anybody killing a police officer: Death penalty is going to happen, okay?" The logistics of such an action would be tricky, especially given that 20 states have already outlawed the practice, and Trump has not touched on the death penalty question much since then.

And while Clinton may side with the majority of Americans in supporting the death penalty, she is in the minority of Democrats. Clinton’s own party called for an end to the death penalty in its party platform at the 2016 convention . But the nominee herself continues to support the practice, even as she points to some flaws in the system of capital punishment.

During a New Hampshire campaign event last October, Clinton responded to a voter’s question on the issue, “We have a lot of evidence now that the death penalty has been too frequently applied, and too often in a discriminatory way. So I think we have to take a hard look at it.” However, Clinton then added that she was not in favor of abolishing the entire practice due to “certain egregious cases that still deserve the consideration of the death penalty.” She specified during a March town hall that these “certain egregious cases” could be tied to federal terrorism investigations.