Certain must-pass ideological litmus tests have arisen for the 25 declared candidates (so far) seeking the Democratic Party presidential nomination. Perhaps chief among them is subscription to the belief that the American criminal-justice system is racist and overly punitive. This Democratic unanimity makes sense in light of the criticism that many of the leading candidates have faced from activists, left-wing media, and other, more “woke,” presidential hopefuls for their earlier acceptance, or even endorsement, of proactive policing, quality-of-life enforcement, and incarceration as reasonable methods of combating crime.
JOE BIDEN’S ROLE IN ’90S CRIME LAW COULD HAUNT ANY PRESIDENTIAL BID, ran a prescient 2015 New York Times headline. Doubtless sensing vulnerability, the former vice president and current Democratic front-runner made a Martin Luther King Day speech to Al Sharpton’s National Action Network this year, telling the audience that “I haven’t always been right” about criminal justice and that “white America has to admit there’s still a systematic racism, and it goes almost unnoticed by so many of us.”
That hasn’t stopped some of Biden’s Democratic opponents (not to mention President Trump) from pushing the incarceration button. California senator Kamala Harris, one of his leading rivals, hit Biden for backing the 1994 omnibus crime bill, which, she says, contributed to “mass incarceration in this country.” Harris herself, though, has met criticism for being too tough on crime in her days as a prosecutor and as California attorney general. New Jersey senator Cory Booker—one of the most outspoken of the candidates on criminal-justice reform—has also had his reformist credentials questioned, with a recent Times story criticizing his “zero-tolerance” approach to crime when serving as Newark’s mayor from 2006 to 2013, citing ACLU complaints. But all the Democrats are striking the same chord. “More people [are] locked up for low-level offenses on marijuana than for all violent crimes in this country,” Massachusetts senator Elizabeth Warren, another top-tier Biden challenger, declared at last year’s We the People Summit. Bernie Sanders, the Vermont senator known best for his left-wing economic populism, has described felon disenfranchisement as racist voter suppression. And South Bend mayor Pete Buttigieg told Out that incarceration is “clearly worsening some of the patterns of racial inequality in our country.”
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