Where the candidates stand on criminal justice and policing

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HARI SREENIVASAN: We turn now to our series on issues shaping this election.

Tonight: What will our next president do about this country’s justice system?

Hillary Clinton has pointed to reducing racial bias and over-incarceration.

Here she was at the first presidential debate more than three weeks ago.

HILLARY CLINTON (D), Presidential Nominee: It’s just a fact that if you’re a young African-American man and you do the same thing as a young white man, you are more likely to be arrested, charged, convicted, and incarcerated.

So, we’ve got to address the systemic racism in our criminal justice system. We cannot just say law and order. We have to say — we have to come forward with a plan that is going to divert people from the criminal justice system, deal with mandatory minimum sentences which have put too many people away for too long for doing too little.

HARI SREENIVASAN: For his part, President Obama has stepped up the use of his clemency powers in the last year. In 2016, he’s shortened some 590 sentences, almost all of them for nonviolent drug-related crimes.

That’s not how Donald Trump has described the effort. He told an audience last weekend that the White House is, in his words — quote — “steadily dismantling the federal criminal justice system.”

Here’s more from that event in New Hampshire.

DONALD TRUMP (R), Presidential Nominee: President Obama has commuted the sentences of record numbers of high-level drug traffickers. Can you believe this?

Many of them kingpins and violent armed traffickers with extensive criminal histories and records. Hillary Clinton promises to continue and expand this approach, turning our streets back over to gangs, drug cartels and armed career criminals that we’re not going to get out of our country.

And I want everything to be law and order and justice and everything perfect, everything perfect.

HARI SREENIVASAN: We dig in to the issue of law and order in this campaign.

Again to Lisa Desjardins. She recorded this conversation yesterday.

LISA DESJARDINS: To discuss all this, we’re joined by Leah Wright Rigueur. She’s a professor at Harvard focusing on American history, race, civil rights and the presidency. And David Harris, professor of law at the University of Pittsburgh, he studies police behavior, law enforcement, and the law more broadly.

Welcome to you both.

DAVID HARRIS, University of Pittsburgh: Thank you.

LISA DESJARDINS: David, I want to start with criminal justice reform. The idea generally is that perhaps we have too many people in prison for too long. Where do these two candidates stand on criminal justice reform?

DAVID HARRIS: Well, Mr. Trump has not said much about mass incarceration.

His platform of criminal justice seems to center on the idea of law and order generally, on getting tougher, in particular using stop and frisk and various kinds of racial profiling.

Mrs. Clinton has a different take on these things. She’s very much putting on the forefront of her campaign the idea of getting rid or cutting back on mass incarceration, and particularly on improving the relations between police and the communities they serve, particularly people of color.

You heard her in the first debate talking about implicit bias. This is one of her main planks in her criminal justice platform.

LISA DESJARDINS: Leah Wright Rigueur, we heard Donald Trump over the weekend even say he thinks the idea of commuting some of these drug sentences might be hurting the opioid crisis, in fact, bringing more drug traffickers onto the street.

Can you comment on where he is and also the past history of both these candidates, Clinton and Trump, when it comes to crime in America?

LEAH WRIGHT RIGUEUR, Harvard University: So, I think the approach that Donald Trump is taking is, in fact, breaking with the new direction of the Republican Party, which has been to take a gentler approach on issues of drugs and even on mass incarceration.

He built himself as the law and order candidate. But what law and order means largely for him is watching, is surveying, surveillance, control. And it’s really about an intervention of the state on behalf of controlling crime.

That is radical in some ways. And he’s really marking himself as a kind of new, souped-up Richard Nixon. Now, the interesting thing here is that Trump’s history really does play into this. The most obvious example is the Central Park 5 case, where he called for kind of harsh draconian law, imposure of law and order, on men who were later found to be innocent.

But what is interesting is that, even after they were found to be innocent and after the courts ruled in their favor, he still doubled down, and, in fact, last week doubled down on where he was standing, doubled down on his approach on how these men should have been treated.

The interesting thing here is that, where we have with somebody, a candidate like Hillary Clinton, who still is kind of risk-averse when it comes to law and order things, where we have seen some growth with her, right? We know her — and many people know her, are familiar with her because of her language around super predators and the mass incarceration in the 1994 crime bill.

We have seen a willingness on the part of her campaign to shift in a direction of more progressive policies. Not so much with Donald Trump, who seems to have doubled down even harder from where he stood many years ago.

LISA DESJARDINS: It’s so interesting. We have two candidates that, at different points, have been tough on crime, but now they seem to be going in different rhetoric directions.

David Harris, I want to ask you about one of Donald Trump’s ideas. He says we need to increase police power and increase police numbers. What do we know about what that does, and does that work?

DAVID HARRIS: Well, these are two different things, police power and police numbers.

We know that, in a police department, having more officers can allow police to serve communities better. But it depends very much on how they are used, how they are deployed and how well they are trained. So, numbers by themselves don’t make a difference.

Increasing police powers, that’s a whole other thing. And I think we have been through an era, from the 1980s forward, where police power, especially in crime on the streets kind of issues, police power has been increased and increased, and discretion has been opened and opened and opened some more, to the point that police have very great power.

They have very great power to stop people, to frisk people, to make traffic stops and turn them into drug investigations. All of these things are signs of very great police power. And we have reached a point where I think most people acknowledge that there need to be some limits.

LISA DESJARDINS: But, in some cases, more police on the street does help. It’s just how you deploy it; is that what you’re saying?

DAVID HARRIS: Yes, very much.

I mean, you can put numbers on the street, and it may help, but numbers alone never make for success. It’s how you use the resources you have, including, most importantly, your human resources, your police officers. If they are well-trained, they have good communication skills, they relate well to the community, you can really build something. You can build relationships.

And that’s where all good policing starts, with relationships with communities.

LISA DESJARDINS: Finally, in the short time we have left, I want to ask you all, this is a daily topic for many Americans. But I have been amazed there has been very little headlines in terms of the political campaign about these ideas of crime and justice.

How important are these when it comes to the conversation right now about crime and justice in America, Leah?

LEAH WRIGHT RIGUEUR: So, they’re incredibly important.

And I think this is part of — at least for Donald Trump, this is part of a larger conversation that he is having that is largely about control. Right? So, it’s not just about — he manages to connect this idea of law and order and about policing to other ideas like rigged elections, right, which is a very troubling — very troubling area that he’s moved into.

I also think it’s worth considering how Hillary Clinton thinks about and how her campaign has really thought about policing inequality injustice.

And so I mentioned before that she’s been risk-averse in a number of different ways. And we have seen some of these tensions between social and movements political movements that have come off, off the ground, but, at the same time, I think we have seen kind of pushing and a willingness or an ability to move and shift on these important issues.

LISA DESJARDINS: All right, David Harris of the University of Pittsburgh and Leah Wright Rigueur of Harvard, thank you both for joining us.

LEAH WRIGHT RIGUEUR: Thanks for having us.

DAVID HARRIS: Pleasure. Thank you.

HARI SREENIVASAN: We know you care about the issues this election. Find all of our coverage on where the candidates stand on various topics, from climate change to ISIS, on our Web site, PBS.org/NewsHour.

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