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Long IslandColumnistsDan Janison

Presidential candidates' crime policy records resurface as attitudes change

Democratic presidential candidate and former Maryland Gov. Martin

Democratic presidential candidate and former Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley addresses the summer meeting of the Democratic National Committee, Friday, Aug. 28, 2015, in Minneapolis. Photo Credit: AP / Jim Mone

Crime crackdowns of the past are complicating the politics of the present for several presidential candidates.

When Baltimore erupted in rioting in April, after the death in custody of 25-year-old Freddie Gray, a share of attention turned to Democratic underdog Martin O'Malley, who had boasted of having transformed the city when he was its mayor.

But in 2010 -- while O'Malley served as Maryland governor -- the city paid $870,000 and agreed to change police practices to settle a lawsuit charging thousands of Baltimore residents were arrested without probable cause. It was a flash point raised in the disturbances' wake.

Last month former President Bill Clinton, with spouse Hillary Rodham Clinton now front-runner for the nomination, went before a national meeting of the NAACP and conceded that the crime bill he signed two decades ago worsened what's now perceived as the problem of mass incarceration.

Vice President Joe Biden has yet to declare his 2016 intentions. But as a senator from Delaware, he had his name attached to the sweeping Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act that Clinton signed. And he has touted it as having put another 100,000 police officers on U.S. streets.

Biden said as recently as April that "because crime was rampant, everybody signed on. And it worked."

The measure created financial incentives for states to keep more people locked up longer, a practice that politicians in both parties seem intent on scaling back.

Now video steers the conversation, and protesters under the aegis of Black Lives Matter win attention by interrupting appearances by Clinton, Bernie Sanders and Jeb Bush, prodding them to commit to reforming what activists see as excessively strict sentences for nonviolent offenders.

On a state level, too, the political winds shifted as recorded crime rates plummeted. From the start of his administration in 2011, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo said, "An incarceration program is not an employment program. If people need jobs, let's get people jobs. Don't put other people in prison to give some people jobs."

Many years earlier, however, Gov. Mario Cuomo expanded that prison system, as part of his resistance in principle to restoring the state's death penalty. Once George Pataki succeeded Cuomo in 1995, he signed a capital punishment statute.

But it brought no executions. In 2004, the Court of Appeals ruled that part of that statute violated the state constitution.


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