As I argued in Cheap on Crime, 2008 was the first year in more than three decades in which criminal justice was not a fundamental part of the conversation. Obama and McCain, and in 2012 Obama and Romney, discussed the economy, immigration, and foreign policy (albeit to a lesser extent), but did not much address mass incarceration. With the advent of the financial crisis, and the state and local frantic scramble for funds, the political scene was a fertile Petri dish for bipartisan collaborations.
Indeed, the Obama administration did a lot of important things--some merely symbolic, some practical--to reverse the mass incarceration trend. They reduced the crack/powder cocaine disparity, scaled back mandatory minimums, proclaimed a federal intention to stay away from marijuana-legalizing states, made changes to solitary confinement in the federal system, created the conditions for the DEA to consider descheduling marijuana, and it is rumored that some death row pardons might be in the works. Obama's personal decency, deep humanity and presidential demeanor contributed to the perception of this administration as more committed to fairness and moderation: among other things, he visited a federal prison in Oklahoma and spoke there of reform, and recently he had lunch with a group of nonviolent drug offenders whose sentences he commuted.
This is wonderful stuff, and the Obama administration should be lauded for all this. Sadly, none of the candidates on offer for 2016, with no exception, match his eloquence, dignity, integrity, and good sense. And indeed, even though the federal system is small in scope, it does have some impact on criminal justice reform.
According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics data, in 2014 there were 1,561,525 federal and state prisoners in the United States. 1,350,958 (86.5%) of them were held in state prisons and 210,567 (13.5%) in federal prisons. The 1% decline in prison population between 2013 and 2014 is attributable in part to the federal system, which saw a decline of 2.5%, compared to the 0.7% in the states. So, yes--some change can be made at the federal level, but its impact on the overall system is fairly limited.
An example that has recently been in the news is the confrontation between Bill Clinton, campaigning for his wife, and the Black Lives Matters activists. As John Pfaff argues in the New York Times, the 1994 Crime Bill--lauded by Clinton for its effects on public safety and excoriated by the activists for its effects on incarceration--did neither of these things. Pfaff writes:
We know the act didn’t cause mass incarceration: Prison populations started rising around 1974, and by 1994 they had roughly tripled, from 300,000 to over one million. It’s almost surely the case that America was the world’s largest jailer well before the act was passed. So if the act didn’t cause mass incarceration, the question becomes: Did it help continue to drive it? The answer, by and large, is no.
For one thing, most of the act’s provisions applied only to federal crimes. The tough new anti-gang laws, the expanded death-penalty provisions, the three-strikes laws: All applied only to those tried in federal court. And those, over all, are fairly minor players, with the federal prison system holding about only 13 percent of all prisoners. The other 87 percent of inmates are in state systems — and none of the act’s new criminal laws affected what happened in state systems.But, the Act's role in reducing crime was also marginal at best:
The most obvious thing to consider is that rates of violent crimes and property crime began to decline in 1992, three years before the law’s various provisions started going into effect. There’s no real perceptible change in the rate of that decline after the act. If you want to claim that the law did much to stop crime, this alone is a pretty significant problem. It’s not the only one, either.
For one thing, if the law had very little impact on prison populations (despite all the claims to the contrary), then it can’t take credit for however much crime was reduced by rising incarceration. And while the act authorized almost $10 billion over six years to hire up to 100,000 additional police officers — a provision that could have reduced crime — the data suggest any impact was fairly slight. (Once again, $10 billion seems like a lot, but local governments spent over $250 billion on policing during the six years the program was in effect.) All told, the policing program seems to have pushed crime rates down by perhaps an additional 1 percent. And a government review of the included assault-weapons ban found that its effect was minimal, if only because people shifted to non-assault weapons with large-capacity magazines.There are important things that a conscientious federal administration can affect. It can make it easier for inmates to review their cases through habeas corpus, thus perhaps correcting some of the horrific miscarriages of justice in cases of exnoerees. It can make it easier to litigate prison conditions in federal courts. It can make important symbolic gains in the fight against the death penalty and the war on drugs.
But the bottom line is that, if you want to see criminal justice reform with substantial consequences, you are better off focusing on the state and local arena. Among the propositions battling for your attention are Justice That Works, a death penalty repeal measure; Gov. Brown's initiative to abolish direct filing of juvenile cases in adult courts and to bring back some early releases; and an initiative to legalize marijuana in California. This is a remarkable year that could generate massive improvements where they matter, so don't let the Drumpf circus throw off your focus.