“This week’s presidential debate featured plenty of crossfire from Democratic candidates over the scope and pace of criminal justice reforms. It may have seemed like a normal part of the political conversation today given what we know about mass incarceration, racial disparities in policing and the opioid crisis. But it’s worth pausing here, in an age of lowered violent crime rates and newfound appreciation for police brutality, to note how far the national conversation over justice reform has come in the past few election cycles.
The back-and-forth between candidates, 15 months before the 2020 presidential election, would have been unthinkable in the Democratic debates of 1988 or 1996 or 2004 or even 2012. Unthinkable for fear that a Republican president or presidential candidate would immediately pounce on these reform ideas as being “soft on crime,” and thus dangerous and unpresidential. George Bush, the elder, used Willie Horton in 1988 to successfully stir up white fear of crime about his opponent, Michael Dukakis. Donald Trump has used “American carnage” and unfounded fear of the link between immigrants and crime as a primal theme.”