The Baltimore riots and Freddie Grey's death may finally make criminal justice an issue in the 2016 campaign

Freddie Grey BaltimoreAP Photo/David GoldmanSonya Norko marches with demonstrators to Baltimore City Detention Center the day of the announcement of charges against the police officers involved in Freddie Grey’s arrest, Friday, May 1, 2015 in Baltimore.

Call it the Baltimore effect.

For the first time in more than two decades, America’s broken criminal justice system looks to be a major issue in a US presidential campaign.

Ever since 1988, when George H.W. Bush used the infamous Willie Horton commercial to portray Michael Dukakis as soft on crime, crime issues have largely disappeared from campaign rhetoric.

In 2012, not a single question about criminal justice was asked in 24 presidential, vice presidential, and primary debates, Stephen Handelman notes in The Crime Report.

But in the wake of Baltimore’s unrest sparked by yet another death of a black man, Freddie Grey, allegedly at the hands of the police — and after a year in which other victims such as Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, and Walter Scott have become household names — suddenly criminal justice is on the front burner.

Linked to police brutality, overpopulated prisons, and sentencing reform, the issue is fraught with racial dynamics and presents challenges to even the most savvy politician.

Hillary ClintonKevin Hagen/Getty ImagesDemocratic presidential hopeful and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton speaks during the David N. Dinkins Leadership and Public Policy Forum at Columbia University April 29, 2015 in New York City.

On the Democratic side, Hillary Clinton was praised Wednesday for a forceful speech — the first substantive policy speech of her campaign — in which she called for anoverhaul of the criminal justice system. She slammed “mass incarceration” and overly punitive criminal statutes that result in racial discrimination.

Her comments were powerful enough to outshine the instant cries of hypocrisy from critics who pointed out that she has long expressed support for tough-on-crime tactics initiated under her husband’s administration. And during the 2008 campaign, she questioned rival candidate Barack Obama’s proposal to abolish mandatory minimum sentences for federal crimes.

In her speech and other comments, she was also able to outflank former Maryland governor Martin O’Malley, her strongest progressive rival who was threatening to poach the liberal wing of the party.

Martin O'MalleyLarry French/Getty Images for Caesars EntertainmentGovernor Martin O’Malley (D-MD) addresses guests at the grand opening of Horseshoe Casino Baltimore on August 26, 2014 in Baltimore, Maryland.

O’Malley, the former mayor of Baltimore, found himself on the defensive most of the week, backpedaling from accusations that the mistrust of law enforcement and simmering rage in black neighbourhoods stemmed from thecrackdown on crimethat he launched during his tenure from 1999 to 2007.

Rushing back from an overseas trip, O’Malley returned to Baltimore this week, expressed his condolences to Grey’s family and emphasised that police shootings fell to their lowest point in decades while he was mayor.

On the Republican side, Baltimore presents even greater challenges to a party that has long pushed tough-on-crime policies. And it could upend the GOP’s focus on slashing the budget for urban renewal programs.

Baltimore CVSREUTERS/Shannon StapletonPeople clean up a CVS store that was looted and set on fire during clashes with police on Monday in Baltimore, Maryland April 28, 2015.

Jeb Bush, the Republican hopeful who leads the polls, expressed sympathy for Grey’s family but wasvery supportive of tough law enforcement policies, such as the “broken window” theory used in New York City by former mayor Rudy Giuliani during the 1990s.

Under that policy, minor crimes such as jaywalking and jumping subway turnstiles are punished in order to prevent those suspects from committing bigger crimes in the future. Bush also proposed conservative solutions to the anger in black communities — welfare and education reform.

Rand paulREUTERS/Brendan McDermidRepublican U.S. Presidential candidate and Senator of Kentucky Rand Paul speaks to supporters during a campaign event at the National Society for Hebrew Day Schools in the Brooklyn borough of New York April 27, 2015.

Senator Rand Paul (R-Kentucky), the libertarian-leaning candidate, had hoped to attract some African-American votes by reaching out to such audiences and emphasising sentencing reform in his speeches.

But he blew it. He “tried to present himself as a different kind of Republican. Then the riots happened,” Eli Stokols wrote in Politico.

When he appeared on conservative radio host Laura Ingraham’s show, Paul made headlines by quipping that his train came through Baltimore the previous night. “I’m glad the train didn’t stop,” he said.

Senator Ted Cruz (R-Texas) expressed sympathy for African-Americans frustrated about inequities in the criminal justice system.

But when asked about policy reforms, he avoided specifics, condemned the demonization of the police and blamed Obama for turning “us against each other” and stoking racial tension.

Freddie Grey BaltimoreAndrew Burton/Getty ImagesProtesters march through the streets in support of Maryland state attorney Marilyn Mosby’s announcement that charges would be filed against Baltimore police officers in the death of Freddie Grey on May 1, 2015 in Baltimore, Maryland.

Senator Marco Rubio (R-Florida) was one of the few candidates who was absent on Baltimore, apparently not making any public comment about the unrest. In the past, he has tried to have it both ways, articulating support for criminal justice reform asa way to cut back regulation, a red-meat issue for conservatives. And he criticised proposals to reduce penalties for drug use and to legalise drugs, saying that would be a “great mistake.”

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