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Filed 3:39 p.m.
01.15.2016

Where the Democratic Presidential Candidates Stand on Criminal Justice

A look at Clinton, Sanders and O’Malley in their fourth debate.

A look at Clinton, Sanders and O’Malley in their fourth debate.

The three rivals for the Democratic presidential nomination will debate Sunday night in Charleston, S.C., their fourth debate of the campaign season. In the Republican debate, on Thursday, gun control and policing took center stage for a brief period. With Charleston’s recent history of violence — the massacre of nine parishioners in a black church last June and the police killing of an unarmed black motorist in North Charleston in April — criminal justice issues are likely to arise again. Here’s how the three Democrats stand on some of those issues, as reviewed by The Marshall Project.

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Hillary ClintonBernie SandersMartin O'Malley (dropped out Feb. 1)

Hillary Clinton

In the 1970’s, Hillary Rodham was a young, idealistic lawyer who represented people convicted of rape and murder and opposed the death penalty. Then she was the wife (and a vocal supporter) of Bill Clinton, the tough-on-crime, pro-death penalty governor of Arkansas. Then she was First Lady, and in 1994, vouched for a crime bill that significantly contributed to mass incarceration. After that, she was a senator, and said that the death penalty had her “unenthusiastic support.” Now, as she seeks the Democratic nomination for the presidency, she sounds more like the young lawyer she once was, saying, “It’s time to end the era of mass incarceration.”

Clinton has tried to use her support for gun control against her main Democratic rival, Bernie Sanders, whose positions on the issue are complicated. As a senator, for example, she voted against a bill — supported by Sanders — that immunized most gun sellers from liability following shootings.

But in 2008, as she vied in the primary with then-Sen. Barack Obama for mostly white states like West Virginia and Pennsylvania, she often positioned herself as a supporter of gun rights.

“You know,” she said, “my dad took me out behind the cottage that my grandfather built on a little lake called Lake Winola outside of Scranton, and taught me how to shoot.”

Her position on the death penalty has also undergone changes. In 1976, Hillary Rodham Clinton was the director of the legal aid clinic at the University of Arkansas, where she defended inmates, many of them black, on death row.

But when her husband became governor, she stood by as he oversaw the state’s first executions since 1964, including that of a mentally-disabled man who did not understand he was about to die.

In 2000, she said that the death penalty had her “unenthusiastic support”; more recently, she has said that she supports it but only in “limited and rare” circumstances.

On racial justice, Clinton explained to Black Lives Matter activists last August why she has taken an evolving approach: “Your analysis [of racism] is totally fair,” she told them. “It’s historically fair. It’s psychologically fair. It’s economically fair. But…there was a different set of concerns back in the 80s and the early 90s. We have to look at the world as it is today and try and figure out what will work now.”

Bernie Sanders

Bernie Sanders is a liberal mainstay on nearly every policy issue, except when it comes to guns. The senator hails from Vermont — a state with an entrenched hunting and gun culture, as well as lax gun laws. His actions as a lawmaker have produced a mixed record, and he has upset gun-control and gun-rights advocates alike. He has D- rating from the N.R.A..

Shortly after his election to the House of Representatives in 1990, Sanders voted against the Brady Bill, which mandated federal background checks and a waiting period for gun purchases. In total, he voted against the bill five separate times. He also supported allowing Amtrak riders to carry guns in their checked luggage. In 2005, Sanders voted in favor of an N.R.A.-backed bill that protects gun makers from being sued for negligence when people use the guns to commit crimes. He recently changed his stance, saying he would support revising the law to allow gun manufacturers who “act irresponsibly” to be held liable.

In the Senate in 2013, shortly after the massacre of 20 children at Sandy Hook elementary school in Connecticut, Sanders voted for a bill that would have established universal background checks and an assault weapons ban, and also would have closed the "gun-show loophole,” though the bill failed to pass.

He has insisted that those who support strict gun control fail to understand the position of constituents like his. “I think that urban America has got to respect what rural America is about, where 99 percent of the people in my state who hunt are law abiding people," he said recently. As a liberal politician who represents a rural state, he contends that he’s the best candidate to find a consensus on gun policy.

Sanders has been opposed to the death penalty throughout his political career. In Congress, he voted against the expansion of capital punishment at every opportunity, with one exception: in 1994, he voted in favor of the final version of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, which expanded the federal death penalty. An amendment to that bill, which Sanders voted for, would have replaced all federal death sentences with life in prison, but that amendment ultimately failed. In October, he took to the Senate floor to argue that the government “should itself not be involved in the murder of other Americans.”

Sanders has been active in civil rights work since his college years. He attended the 1963 March on Washington and saw Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., give his “I Have A Dream” speech. But as a legislator from the overwhelmingly white state of Vermont, he has come under pressure from rights advocates for his failure to specifically address racial-justice issues.

Shortly after Black Lives Matter activists jumped on stage and shut down a Sanders rally this summer, he won praise from the movement when he unveiled a racial justice platform that focuses on different forms of violence against people of color in the United States: physical, political, legal, and economic. He laid out proposals to address each category, from passing “ban the box” laws (removing questions about a job applicant’s criminal record from employment applications) to restoring provisions from the 1965 Voting Rights Act to outlawing for-profit prisons.

Martin O’Malley (dropped out of race on Feb. 1)

As governor of Maryland, O’Malley signed legislation that made it the 18th state to repeal the death penalty. Now on the campaign trail, ending the federal death penalty is part of his criminal justice platform. After Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was sentenced to death for the Boston Marathon bombings, O’Malley told reporters, “The death penalty is ineffective as a deterrent, and the appeals process is expensive and cruel to the surviving family members.”

On gun regulation, O’Malley pushed through a package of reforms in 2013 that made Maryland one of the strictest states in the country. The laws included a ban on multiple kinds of assault weapons, limits on magazines, fingerprinting for a handgun license and the denial of guns to anyone who has been committed to a mental institution.

His platform on guns is the most expansive of the three Democratic candidates. In addition to the list of changes that Sanders and Clinton are calling for, he has also suggested creating a national firearms registry, setting an age threshold of 21 for all gun sales, and mandating fingerprints for all gun licenses.

While O’Malley often mentions his concern for people of color in his economic and criminal-justice policy proposals, his relationship with those communities has been fraught. O’Malley angered Black Lives Matter protesters in July, when he responded to their interruption of his speech by saying that “all lives matter.” He later apologized and embracedthe slogan at a Democratic debate.

His record as mayor of Baltimore, where protests erupted after Freddie Gray died in police custody last April, has also drawn criticism. O’Malley has been accused by many of establishing a zero-tolerance policing strategy, aimed at reducing the city’s high murder rate but that instead led to the targeting and abuse of black communities.

Photography: Michael Vadon, via Flickr, Greg Hauenstein, via Flickr and The Associated Press.