Next year's presidential contest is now well underway. With Hillary Clinton, the acknowledged frontrunner for the Democrats, officially in the race, and a slew of contenders vying (or likely to vie) for the Republican nomination, across a spectrum ranging from Jeb Bush to Rand Paul, Scott Walker, Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz, it's a good time to begin asking where each of them stand on the criminal justice challenges facing the country.
In our system, most of the gritty justice issues, from overcrowding in jails and prisons to police use of force and errant prosecutors, are dealt with on a state and local level—not by the feds.
Nevertheless, leadership in the White House matters: it establishes priorities, frames the national agenda and sets a tone.
And we clearly need leadership today.
Crime and justice issues are back on the national agenda to an extent that hasn't been seen since the “tough on crime” era of the 1990s.
Not a single question on the topic was asked during the 24 presidential, vice presidential and primary debates leading up to the 2012 election.
Perhaps that's understandable. National opinion polls have shown steadily diminishing public concern about crime over the past two decades—in effect, tracking the national decline in crime rates.
Of course, it's worth noting that polls have also shown that public safety remains high on the list of issues troubling many of our poorest cities and neighborhoods.
But while politicians might be forgiven for largely staying away during recent presidential election cycles from the hot-button subject of crime and justice (a silence, it must be said, that some commentators have welcomed for the breathing space it has allowed efforts at serious reform), they shouldn't get a pass now.
We're confronted today by the consequences of our collective failure to deal with many of the problems that the anti-crime policies of past decades set in motion —and by our persistent failure to address the glaring and deep-rooted inequities that those policies exposed.
The killings of unarmed black men by police in Ferguson, Mo., New York City, Cleveland, North Charleston, S.C., and other cities and towns across the country have dominated headlines; but they are really only one dimension of a larger problem.
Hardly a week goes by, for example, without a new study or report highlighting dysfunction or abuses in the jails and prisons that we've stuffed full of the mentally ill and addicted. We continue to be the world's largest jailer, and the growing population of the formerly incarcerated has filled many of our communities with individuals unable to find legitimate employment—creating a vicious cycle that has destroyed neighborhoods and shortchanged many of our young people.
Readers of The Crime Report are well informed of these challenges. And it's also gratifying to note that some of the prospective candidates from both major parties have begun to acknowledge them as well.
In this one area of our national life, at least, a healthy bi-partisanship has begun to appear.
But we need to make sure that a healthy debate about justice reform doesn't get swept under the rug by the homogenizing pressures of a political campaign.
It's hard to separate what ails American criminal justice from the systemic problems of American society—from racism to economic inequality and our underfunded educational system.
It's never been more important to get our would-be leaders on the record.
So, as our own contribution to the effort, The Crime Report plans over the next few months to ask each candidate targeted questions about his or her ideas and visions for fixing what many consider our “broken” criminal justice system—and to publish them here.
Recently, Washington Post blogger Radley Balko offered up his own group of “quick and dirty” questions on this topic that he'd like to see answered by candidates, even as he lamented, “there's little to no chance” that they would be.
We hope he's wrong.
That's why we're inviting you to participate as well—and help us build momentum by suggesting questions or areas that you think are appropriate for candidates for the highest office in the land.
Following the path blazed by Balko, our editorial team has come up with 13 questions we believe deserve honest and practical answers. You can read our proposed questions below.
[To the next President of the United States]
- The War on Drugs. The federal government has historically allocated about the same amount of resources to drug interdiction on the border and abroad as for drug treatment in the U.S. Is that a fair division, or would you spend more or less money on either function?
- Policing. Would you direct your Attorney General to continue or expand the current administration's oversight over local police departments in areas such as excessive use of force and racial bias? Do you consider officer-involved shootings a serious problem—and if so what role should the federal government have?
- Sentencing Reform. What steps would you take with Congress to reduce the long prison sentences that have contributed to the growth in our federal prison population? What steps would you take to encourage states to do the same?
- Gun Violence. Do you consider gun violence a problem that can be addressed with a return to stricter federal legislation? If not, what role if any should the federal government play in addressing firearms abuse?
- Marijuana. Federal law makes marijuana an illegal drug, but several states have either legalized recreational pot—or are considering doing so. What would you do about this contradiction? Do you favor changing the federal classification of marijuana as a dangerous drug?
- Homeland Security. Since it was established in 2001, the Department of Homeland Security has grown to become one of the nation's largest federal bureaucracies. Do you believe it has been effective in its combined missions of protecting our borders and countering terrorism? If not, how would you change it?
- White Collar Crime. Has the Justice Department done a sufficient job of holding executives in the financial industry personally responsible for major crimes? Sen. Elizabeth Warren has proposed ending the practice of deferring criminal prosecution for banks and other financial institutions found to have engaged in repeated corporate wrongdoing. Would you direct the Department of Justice to adopt her proposal? If not, why?
- Capital Punishment. Do you favor capital punishment for terrorism or other heinous federal crimes?
- Electronic Surveillance. Edward Snowden's revelations about the mass surveillance of American citizens and government leaders abroad have exacerbated concerns about privacy. Do you believe such extensive electronic surveillance is warranted? Will you continue the current administration's efforts to criminally prosecute Snowden?
- Sentinel Events. Would you direct the next Attorney General to continue to support—or expand—the National Institute of Justice's pilot “Sentinel Events” program, which is developing a systemic approach to fixing criminal justice system dysfunctions that result in injustices like wrongful convictions—similar to the approach adapted decades ago by the Civil Aviation Administration to analyze and prevent airline catastrophes?
- Judicial Vacancies. Our federal courts are in crisis because Senators have been slow in confirming judges for the growing number of vacancies. How would you address this?
- Overcriminalization. Do you believe we have overcriminalized too many behaviors that pose little or no danger to public safety? If so, what will you do about it?
- Juvenile Justice. Does the federal government have a role in reforming some of the abuses in our present treatment of juvenile offenders? If so, what should that role be?
We'll publish the final questions in two weeks, present them to the candidates—and of course bring you the answers as we get them.