While New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie was launching his presidential bid Tuesday, two politicians with an even trickier path to the White House spoke to a considerably smaller audience about criminal justice reform.
Former Sen. Jim Webb—the only possible Democratic presidential candidate who can brag about working in Ronald Reagan's administration—appealed to the crowd at the National Sheriffs' Association conference with his military background and his work on the GI Bill during his time in the Senate.
Earlier in the morning, Dr. Ben Carson addressed the crowd of sheriffs and reiterated his penchant for respectability politics. He said frustration and unemployment—not bad policing—are the culprits for strife seen in black communities such as Baltimore and Ferguson, Missouri.
"I have never had a negative encounter with a police officer," Carson said. "If you have respect for authority, you're not going to have a problem."
He added that he supports the transfer of military equipment to local police departments, but added that trust has to be rebuilt between police officers and the communities they patrol.
"I think we need to do everything we can to protect our police officers, without question," he said. "The bigger issue is, what do we need to do as a society to remove the level of animosity that exists between police and society?"
The two long-shot candidates from two parties diverged on one issue—immigration—and found common ground on another: how to deal with mental illness in the U.S. prison population.
Illegal immigration was top-of-mind among the conference attendees. In a Q&A session after Carson's speech, Dave LaBahn, the president of the Association of Prosecuting Attorneys, asked Carson about the "burdens" that are placed on local police officers when legal and illegal immigrants aren't assimilated into American society.
"In terms of assimilation, English is the official language of this country," Carson said. "I don't mind what people do in the privacy of their own homes ... but the official language of our nation is what should be required in our school systems and in our work environments."
He added that someone who speaks English "should never feel uncomfortable in his own country," eliciting applause from the audience.
Carson said the U.S. should deal with illegal immigration by sealing the borders—"north, south, east, and west"—and by taking undocumented immigrants off welfare while implementing a guest worker program for them. Carson added that an insecure border also represents a terror threat.
"There are Islamic jihadists who wish to destroy us," Carson said. "They are growing, they are metastasizing throughout the world."
Webb's stance on immigration was decidedly less popular with the crowd. He touted an amendment he introduced in the Senate that would have provided a path to citizenship to immigrants who have been living in the U.S. illegally for five years and have "put roots down" in their communities.
The event's host said sheriffs have to bear a heavy cost of "illegal aliens" crossing the border and overcrowding jails, and asked Webb what he would do as president to enforce immigration laws.
Webb said that he would try to discourage border crossings, but said the government has to recognize that it is not feasible to deport the 11 million undocumented immigrants already living in the U.S.
"I would want to see our foreign policy focus more heavily on solving the problems in Mexico and Central America," Webb said. "The greatest challenge that we can solve is to work to stabilize the governments in Mexico and Central America so there is a different environment down there."
While criminal-justice reform is still gaining momentum among Republicans in Congress, the next frontier that politicians will have to consider is its intersection with mental illness and drug abuse. A 2014 study from the American Psychological Association found that 64 percent of jail inmates reported mental health concerns.
The conference's host asked Carson for his assessment of mental health care in the U.S.
"It's a significant problem. We don't adequately take care of the people who are mentally ill in our society," Carson said, adding that jail is "exactly the wrong place for them to be."
From there, Carson did not offer many specifics, but said that veterans should be given a health savings account instead of having to conduct their medical care through the Veterans Administration.
Sheriff Susan Benton of Highland County, Florida asked Carson for his take on the "broken windows" theory of policing—that by punishing minor offenses, criminals will be discouraged from committing larger ones. Benton noted that the people who often get hit the hardest in this style of policing are often poor, mentally ill, homeless, or dealing with substance abuse.
Carson said he thinks police should have more "flexibility" in dealing with lower-level offenders.
"Zero-tolerance rules do not give us the flexibility that we need," he said. "To take those people and put them again into Criminal University, which is what a lot of the jails are, is not helping us as a society."
When asked how he'd go about reforming the criminal justice system as president, Webb went even further, saying Congress should prioritize parity for mental-health care compared to other medical care.
"We need to be providing the right kinds of assistance to people who have issues like that and not simply the brutality and inattention that so often goes into being incarcerated," Webb said.
He also pinned prison overcrowding on the over-prosecution of nonviolent drug offenses. Nearly 50 percent of inmates in federal prison are serving sentences related to drug offenses.
"I don't think it makes a lot of sense to put people in jail when they have a disease, when they have an illness," he said.
Criminal justice reform is less likely to have much of an influence on the presidential election than immigration. That may be because it's less of a wedge issue today than it was 10 years ago. But they are two topics that give a sense of how presidential candidates want to treat people who they can't necessarily relate to.
Webb and Carson aren't likely to make it out of the primaries. But they do have the power to draw more national attention to something like criminal justice reform. If they can't pull their respective primary opponents toward the middle, they can at least help enfranchise people that politicians have no other incentive to care about.
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