Yesterday, the Massachusetts Senate considered a sweeping criminal justice reform bill, which was drafted with an aim to ostensibly relax decades of tough-on-crime policies. But over the course of considering 161 amendments, the state Senate — in which Democrats currently have a 32-to-6 advantage — voted in favor of one that would establish a mandatory minimum punishment of a year in prison (and a maximum of ten years) for striking a police officer. The introduction of mandatory minimums for a simple assault charge specifically against police officers inherently puts them in a protected class, raising questions about the state’s Democrats’ commitment to criminal justice reform.
The amendment was sponsored by the Republican minority leader, Bruce Tarr, who told the (Springfield) Republican prior to the vote that “there is a reason for incarceration.” Simply put, this amendment happened because Democrats wanted it to happen. As State Sen. Jamie Eldridge, a Democrat who voted against the bill, said in a tweet:
Massachusetts has long had a reputation as one of the most liberal states in the country. Earlier this year, a Gallup poll found that Massachusetts was the second-least conservative state in the union, finishing behind only Vermont, which has a socialist senator, Bernie Sanders. And while Massachusetts has a Republican governor, Charlie Baker, Democrats have overwhelming supermajorities in both houses of the state legislature; 84 percent control over the state Senate Senate, and 78 percent control over the House of Representatives.
But Massachusetts Democrats aren’t alone in retreating to reactionary, regressive policies when it comes to the police. Delaware is one of just six states where Democrats hold both the governor’s mansion and both chambers of the legislature, but the House of Representatives voted in May to reinstate the death penalty — which was ruled unconstitutional last summer by the state Supreme Court — after lobbying from police organizations.
“I wouldn't rule out,” Gov. John Carney, also a Democrat, said during a debate last year, “supporting a death penalty that applied only to those convicted of killing a member of law enforcement.” (This bill never reached his desk, as the state Senate declined to take action on it before the June 30 deadline.)
Massachusetts Democrats aren’t alone in retreating to reactionary, regressive policies.
Contrast how Democrats in Massachusetts and Delaware use power with North Carolina, where Republicans have supermajorities in both chambers, partially owing to gerrymandered legislative districts. Over the course of the past several years — despite, in 2012, state Senate and House Republicans getting fewer votes than their Democratic opponents overall — the party has turned a formerly purple bastion of the South into a laboratory for the far right, ruthlessly dismantling voting rights, environmental protections, the safety net, and the few tools the state’s black incarcerated population had to combat systemic white supremacy.
You’d almost think that this would mean Democrats would be more indignant, but you’d be wrong: last year, all but one of the 16 Democrats in the state Senate voted in favor of a bill that created restrictions on body-camera footage so tilted toward the whims of police chiefs as to render the entire concept useless (Democrats countered that the authorization of needle-exchange programs swayed them to vote for the bill).
There is quite literally no need for laws making the police a class with protections akin to those based on race or class. FBI data last year showed that, in spite of the “war on cops” rhetoric spouted by conservatives, 2015 was the safest year to be a cop in over a decade; in terms of public sector work, it’s more dangerous to be a waste collector. Meanwhile, accountability for cops who kill people — even on video — is exceedingly rare, with CNN reporting in June that only 80 police officers were arrested between 2005 and April 2017 on murder or manslaughter charges.
But policing in America has always been rooted in protecting powerful interests, dating back to the days of slave-catching and strike-breaking, and the kinds of people who get elected to office in America are usually pretty powerful people. Democrats, as much as Republicans, tend to recruit prosecutors to run for office, people who have working relationships with cops. In the Delaware’s case, the Democratic Speaker of the House, Peter Schwartzkopf, is a retired police officer himself, as are the two Republicans in North Carolina who pushed the body-camera law.
You’d almost think that this would mean Democrats would be more indignant, but you’d be wrong.
But all of this is at odds with what Democrats say they want in criminal justice policy. “Democrats are committed to reforming our criminal justice system and ending mass incarceration,” the Democratic National Committee’s platform on criminal justice read last year. And in June, the Massachusetts Democratic Party’s platform was touted by In These Times as “among the most progressive ever by a state party,” including — among other things — “more accountability for police officers who use excessive force.” (In These Times also noted, however, that a proposal which would have prioritized distributing resources to candidates who supported a majority of the platform was ruled out of order.)
It’s also important to note that while the party has gotten at least nominally more progressive on criminal justice issues, it wasn’t that way so long ago. Democratic mayors like Baltimore’s Martin O’Malley as well as Republicans like Rudy Giuliani pushed “broken windows” policing policy, which targeted mostly black people in poor neighborhoods for crimes like nonviolent crimes like vandalism and sent them to jail. At the federal level, Bill Clinton’s Democratic Party was the party of the draconian 1994 crime bill, which introduced mandatory minimums for drug possession and encouraged states to limit parole with federal grants. That bill, by the way, was written by Joe Biden, who as recently as last August was still proud of it.
It’s hard to say, after the crushing losses of last year, what could possibly get Democrats to change course in both words and action. Recent polling shows that even the party’s most loyal supporters are starting to get fed up with the Democrats’ ineffectiveness, but everyone knows the party isn’t doing hot pretty much anywhere: Republicans not only control the presidency, the Senate, and the House, but also 34 out of 50 governor’s mansions, and 67 percent of all nonpartisan state legislative chambers in the country.
Although early signs are promising that Trump’s unpopularity could produce a wave against Republicans, it’s not a done deal by any means. And as long as Democrats are voting for quasi-Blue Lives Matter laws and to reinstate the death penalty at a time when it’s disappearing nationwide, the future of liberalism looks pretty bleak.