After years of plunging crime rates, expensive incarceration budgets and troubling racial disparities in criminal punishment, it has become fashionable on the presidential campaign trail to declare the nation’s uncommonly high rate of imprisonment unacceptable. Just don't press candidates to explain how to change it significantly, says the Los Angeles Times. Hillary Clinton began demanding an end to the “era of mass incarceration” almost from the day she launched her campaign. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) made a pledge that would include cutting the prison population by more than one-quarter within four years. On the Republican side, Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky calls mass incarceration the Jim Crow of our time. Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey says the U.S. distinction of having more people locked up than any other nation is not what he has in mind when trumpeting American exceptionalism.
Ask what it would take to accomplish their goals, and the campaigns struggle. The politically palatable prescriptions packed into bullet points in candidates' criminal justice plans don't get the U.S. even close. The proposals the candidates have embraced so far would make a tiny dent in the current 2.2 million behind bars. If the candidates are aware of this, they aren't letting on. Sanders has made the most specific promise, generating excitement among liberal activists for a pledge he made this month that by the end of his first term as president, “this country will not have more people in jail than any other country.” Reductions needed to move the U.S. out of the top spot in the world mean moving “beyond proposals that just deal with low-level drug offenses,” said Ryan King of The Urban Institute. That means softening penalties for violent convicts, and “no candidates are talking about that,” he said.