The last time a Clinton and a Bush ran for president, the nation was awash in crime and the two parties were competing to show who could be tougher. Sentences were lengthened and new prisons sprouted up. More than two decades later, says the New York Times, declared and presumed candidates for president are competing over how to reverse what they see as the excesses of the 1990s and the mass incarceration that followed. Democrats and Republicans are proposing ways to reduce the prison population and rethink a system that has locked up a generation of young African-American men. Hillary Rodham Clinton, Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) and Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) want to ease mandatory minimum sentences. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie wants to release nonviolent offenders pending trial without bail. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, former Texas Gov. Rick Perry and former Senator James Webb (D-VA) want to expand drug treatment as an alternative to prison.
The focus on overhauling the criminal justice system comes at a time of protests over the use of lethal force by the local police and unrest in cities like Baltimore and Ferguson, Mo., and represents a profound shift in American politics. “This really does reflect a huge change in the political momentum from decades when parties and candidates competed to see who could be the most flamboyantly punitive,” said Michael Waldman, president of the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University's School of Law. The extent of that change is evident in a book the Brennan Center has compiled featuring essays by many of the major presidential candidates laying out ideas for tackling the criminal justice system.