It took four nights of debate spread over two months to get there, but criminal justice finally got some air time in the Democratic presidential debate July 31.
It’s unfortunate that the entire discussion was a series of attacks from one candidate on others for past mistakes. Fingers pointed at anyone who directly affected criminal justice policy. New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker caught flak for past stop-and-frisk activities when he was the mayor of Newark, and California Sen. Kamala Harris was slammed for prosecuting so many marijuana crimes when she was that state’s attorney general.
Former Vice President Joe Biden suffered a political beatdown because he supported the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, popularly known as the 1994 Crime Bill, which is blamed for not necessarily causing but accelerating mass incarceration.
Booker accused Biden of legislative arson: “This is one of those instances where the house was set on fire and you claimed responsibility for those laws. And you can’t just now come out with a plan to put out that fire.”
Booker’s been a longtime champion of changing our systems of accountability, so he should know better. Biden can atone for past blunders and anti-crime bombast. In fact, if we are to become a redemptive nation, we need to let him.
We live in a world now where mistakes are neither isolated nor fleeting. Even if there’s one instance of it, bad judgment becomes a chronic condition, so persistent that it weaves itself into your vital statistics. Date of birth. Eye color. List your grievous errors.
It’s become an American tradition to highlight bungles and boondoggles, relying on the tired adage “the best predictor of future behavior is past behavior.”
Anyone who’s ever been surprised by anything will tell you that’s not always true. Past as predictor doesn’t explain why patterns start - or why they stop. Things change.
Besides, we went through this same analysis of the Crime Bill in the 2016 election because the Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton, was married to the last person to touch the law that wrought so much harm.
Former President Bill Clinton apologized for what he did. “I signed a bill that made the problem worse,” he confessed four years ago to the people attending the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People’s annual meeting. “And I want to admit it.”
Clinton’s admission served as a turning point where candidates - and their surrogates - asserted their right to evolve into better leaders.
I won’t hold someone’s previous decisions against them if they’re willing to choose a new path, because that’s the standard I think people should live by.
Booker, Biden and Harris all instituted oppressive and trauma-inducing policies, for sure, but none of that matters to me. What matters is what they are going to do now, in the future and if they’re elected.
Any campaign I support will have a forward frame. I will withhold my primary vote from any candidate who holds past good faith decisions of a competitor against them. You should do the same.
Chandra Bozelko writes the award-winning blog Prison Diaries and is the Vice President of the National Society of Newspaper Columnists. You can follow her on Twitter at @ChandraBozelko and email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.