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Ralph Nader > In the Public Interest > The Tough on Crime Party

Sometimes, you can’t tell the Washington players by the color of their jerseys.

For decades, the Republicans have laid claim to the title as the “tough on crime” party. Now, a report issued by the Justice Policy Institute finds it’s not the Republicans, but the Democrats’ recently departed President Clinton who has title to what the Institute labels as the “most punitive platform on crime” in the last two decades

Noting that President Clinton consistently supported increased penalties and additional prison construction, the report said that 225,000 more prison inmates were added during Clinton’s eight years than were added under President Reagan’s watch. And President Clinton also topped President George Bush’s incarceration score, adding 34,000 more during his first term (1992-1996) than were added to the prison population in the four years of Bush’s single term (1988-1992).

The cost of these “tough on crime” policies is staggering. By 1997, the criminal justice system employed more than two million people at a cost of more than $70 billion annually. By the end of Clinton Administration, there were two million people jails and prisons in the United States and 4.5 million others on probation and parole.

Sadly, today there are more people working in the criminal justice system than are working in community and social service occupations like employment, vocational, mental health, substance abuse counseling and similar programs that might prevent crime and rehabilitate former prison inmates, according to the data analyzed by Justice Policy Institute.

African-Americans, in particular, have felt the effects of the “tough on crime” politics of both major political parties. Between 1980 and 1999, the incarceration rate for African-Americans more than tripled from 1,156 per 100,000 to 3,620 per 100,000.

Some of the growing prison population of African-Americans is the result of tougher sentencing laws enacted in 1986 and 1988 which made the punishment for distributing crack cocaine 100 times greater than the punishment for powder cocaine. The result of these laws meant that persons convicted of crack cocaine offenses, who tend to be African-Americans, received substantially harsher sentences than white citizens more likely to be users of the powder form of the drug. For example, a person convicted in federal court of distributing five grams of crack cocaine receives a mandatory five-year minimum sentence while it takes 500 grams of powdered cocaine to trigger a five-year mandatory sentence.

In 1994, the U. S. Sentencing Commission which oversees federal sentencing guidelines recommended that the sentencing be equalized so that the mandatory sentence would be triggered by the same amounts of cocaine whether in powdered or crack form. But, the Congress voted to reject the Commission’s recommendation and President Clinton signed the rejection into law.

Based on his record in Texas, President George W. Bush would seem to hold out little hope for reform of our criminal justice system. With Bush as Governor, the State of Texas had the largest prison population among the 50 states including California with 13 million more citizens than Texas. Last year, according to the National Coalition to End the Death Penalty, 40 people were executed in Texas?29 more than Virginia, the second place finisher in the death penalty sweepstakes.

Clearly, there needs to be a saner, fairer, better administered and less costly criminal justice system focused on treatment and rehabilitation and prevention. Filling more expensive taxpayer-financed prisons with drug sers and other non-violent offenders serves no one but the politicians who want to posture as “tough on crime” while doing nothing to reduce root causes of crime.

President Bush has made great efforts to convince the nation that he is a “compassionate conservative.” He has an opportunity to make that slogan come alive by demanding a better and fairer criminal justice
system. He has his “crime fighter” badge from Texas. Now he has a chance to earn another badge as a true reformer of the criminal justice system in the United States.