You’d struggle to find a single issue that resonates more with the base of the Democratic Party than criminal justice reform. An astounding 87 percent of Democrats say that they want to see America’s prison population decrease. Eighty percent of Democrats want to see the whole justice system reformed.
But when the rubber meets the road on actually making criminal justice reform happen, Democrats are ghosts. I’m not talking about the senators who are likely going to run for president. They have a lot to say about criminal justice reform. And I’m not throwing shade, but it’s easy to talk about bold reforms and game-changing policies when you aren’t in power — Republicans did it every year when Barack Obama was in the Oval Office. What I’m talking about is the Democratic Party machinery on the local, state, and federal level.
If the Democratic Party was smart, they would be out front leading and owning the effort to make criminal justice reform happen, but they aren’t.
Everyday Democrats want to see justice reform. And if the Democratic Party was smart, they would be out front leading and owning the effort to make this happen, but they aren’t. Instead, White House adviser Jared Kushner is convening people at the White House to talk about these reforms. We could all say it’s a sham — and maybe it is — but optics dominate politics. It’s a good political play: If President Donald Trump and Kushner can convince just a tiny percentage of Democrats for whom these issues matter that they’re serious, they can swipe a few votes out form under the Democratic Party’s nose — particularly in swing states where Trump either barely won or lost.
Most incarcerated people are arrested and convicted on the state and local level — therefore the most impactful criminal justice reform, as tedious as it may be, must happen on the state and local level, one city, county, and state at a time. Federal criminal justice reform isn’t a nothing burger, but it’s just a few steps above that. It can set the tone for what happens on the local and state level, but at the end of the day, cities and states have to do the hard work of reforming the laws and policies they enforce.
That’s why it broke my heart when so many people campaigned for reform-minded candidates all over California — from San Diego to Sacramento — in the land of Democratic power, only to be completely abandoned by state and national Democratic Parties. The party left courageous candidates pretty much hanging in counties that Hillary Clinton won by a landslide. What that means is that Clinton stomped Trump in San Diego and Sacramento, but each county now has conservative Republican district attorney and sheriff.
If Republicans are completely controlling the criminal justice system in California counties where Democrats run the show in every single presidential election, something’s seriously wrong. What that reveals is how Democrats have learned the talking points of justice reform, but the reality has not caught up with the rhetoric. And that’s dangerous, because anyone else — like Trump and Kushner — can play the rhetoric game as well.
Nowhere did this play out more than it did in Milwaukee. No single city and no single state in the country incarcerates black men at a higher rate than Milwaukee and Wisconsin. What I am about to say defies all comprehension. More than half of all black men in their 30s and early 40s in Milwaukee County have been incarcerated. It’s staggering.
And guess who helped lead the justice system there? None other than Trump cheerleader David Clarke — in a county where Democrats lead every mechanism of government.
Yet Clarke, one of the most cartoonishly right-wing men in America, oversaw the sheriff’s office there — and to devastating effect, with horrendous in-custody deaths.
Thankfully, his reign came to an end this past week. With Clarke now out on the conservative speaking circuit making the big bucks, he left behind a crater-sized hole in the local justice system with lawsuits and court cases all pending.
Enter Earnell Lucas — a progressive reformer determined to change the justice system in Milwaukee from the inside out. He was elected in a landslide on Tuesday against Clarke’s handpicked successor. Lucas prevailed mainly thanks to grassroots support and endorsements from groups like the Working Families Party. Again, in a race that was about as anti-Trump, and pro-criminal justice reform as an election could be, the local, state, and national Democratic Parties were MIA. Consequently, they can’t really claim the victory — which is a tremendous missed opportunity.
This isn’t unique. It’s happening all over the country. When progressive reformers win in law enforcement and criminal justice races, they are doing so in spite of the Democratic Party, not because of it. All of this would seem to be an easy fix, but it gets to the root of the matter. Does the Democratic Party really care about black people or do they just want our votes?