Hillary Clinton recently delivered a thoughtful speech in response to protests and rioting in Baltimore, in which she denounced “mass incarceration.” Mitt Romney is not happy about this. Appearing on Fox News, the former Republican candidate expressed his apparent belief that Hillary Clinton is now opposed to having laws:
I was concerned that her comments really smacked of the politicization of the terrible tragedies that are going on there.
We don’t have mass incarcerations in America. Individuals are brought before tribunals, and they have counsel, they’re given certain rights. Are we not going to lock people up who commit crimes, is that what she’s suggesting?
“Mass incarceration” is a term of art used within a long-standing policy debate of which Romney appears to be completely unaware. Critics of mass incarceration do understand that “individuals are brought before tribunals” (or, as they are called in the United States, “courts”) as opposed to rounded up and imprisoned without trial, as Romney seems to imagine the term implies. Rather, mass incarceration describes the combination of policies and practices that have led to a massive increase in the incarcerated population, and especially the racial disparities this system has created.
Few people in this movement dispute the premise that there should be laws, and that laws should carry punishment of some kind. But the specific shape of the laws in question is a public-policy choice. For instance, until recently, the mandatory minimum federal sentence for first-time possession of crack cocaine took effect at five grams, as opposed to 500 grams for powder cocaine.
What’s more, laws are enforced by people who are subject to racial bias. So, for instance, numerous studies have found that blacks are more likely than whites to be charged, or offered jail time in a plea bargain, than whites accused of the same crime. Likewise, upon conviction, blacks receive longer sentences than whites for the same crime.
Romney appears to be completely unaware of the issue. On top of his comic lack of awareness — which does not stop him from lecturing Clinton on the basis of what he thinks she is talking about — Romney moralistically accuses her of “politicization.” As if anything about this issue — from years of candidates running on, and carrying out, increasingly draconian criminal-justice policy, to the underlying grievances of the communities affected by these policies — has ever existed in a non-political sphere.