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October 11, 2011

Some famous crime and punishment political ads

An amazing website I highly recommend during every politcal season is The Living Room Candidate, which has video clips of more than 300 TV commercials from the major presidential candidates for every presidential election since 1952.  Historically, there have not been all that many ads focused on crime and punishment in presidential election cycles, but a few elections were especially notable for a few ads on these topics.

The 1968 campaign, in addition to being the first with color TV ads, had lots of crime and punishment political ads such as this one "Crime" and this one "The First Civil Right" and this one "Law and Order Democrat" and this one "Busing/Law and Order".

The 1988 campaign between then-Vice President George Bush and then-Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis had two of the most (in)famous modern attack ads: this one "Willie Horton" and this one "Revolving Door" (which I have embedded below).  The "Revolving Door" ad prompted this reponse.

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I have never been much for politics, but I have always found the various focuses of political commercials to be particularly fascinating. As far as I can remember, there hasn't been any major focus on sentencing. As we've seen in the recent Republican debates and roundtables, it seems like the death penalty is going to perhaps be a topic that comes back once a Republican candidate is chosen for the 2012 election. I will be interested to see if, in light of Troy Davis, and the various news reports on Mumia Abu-Jamal (http://www.google.com/hostednews/ap/article/ALeqM5hKAn1Srf5s_kN-u5KQDtHlMkH4fw?docId=a7f86a3d2f69498f9cfe9c280cff1b78 and http://www.philly.com/philly/news/pennsylvania/131566573.html), the death penalty's reverberations will be felt more strongly and be paid more attention in arenas like the Presidential Debates. If the death penalty and related sentencing issues become an important piece of each candidate's platform (though I think that's highly unlikely), it will definitely be interesting to see the effect on voter demographics, if any.

Posted by: Allison S. | Oct 12, 2011 3:05:56 PM

As Allison indicated, Troy Davis and Mumia Abu-Jamal have brought the issue of the death penalty, and specifically how race plays into our death penalty system, back into public discourse. I wonder if this issue might also spur discussion on how race plays into the remaining aspects of our sentencing system, thereby becoming a salient issue in the elections in addition to death penalty discussions. I agree that the state of the economy, foreign policy, and moral issues will dominate the debates as usual, but maybe enough will be said about the issue in the preliminary stages of the election that other factions in society will take notice. If racial issues in general become an important topic, maybe the role that race plays in sentencing specifically will come into play and Tory Davis and others will be used as anecdotes. This kind of issue is certainly one that is conducive to provocative ads like the ones from the Bush-Dukakis election, and it will be interesting to see if any of the campaigns take that route. Even if the issue is not addressed at length during the election or through campaign ads, I would expect that any discussion of it by candidates would instigate serious debate in other forums that will hopefully continue post election craze.

Posted by: Ranya Elzein | Oct 13, 2011 1:17:01 PM

I agree that non-capital sentencing will probably not be a key issue for the 2012 candidates. There seems to be more agreement between Democrats and Republicans with respect to growing prison populations. In Ohio, the Republican party's focus on the budget and capacity constraints has led it to change direction somewhat on the tough sentencing policies of the 1980s. It seems like even this small area of common ground could push sentencing (and criminal justice generally) to the backburner in favor of more divisive issues.

Posted by: Rees Alexander | Oct 13, 2011 1:43:27 PM

I think that position ads like these have very little substance about prison reform or a politician's stance on sentencing. What's worse is that many voters take these soundbites and base their votes on the ads. Few voters would say crime is a good thing and the visual of the revolving door would be enough to strike fear into most any voter. Once that fear has been established, it doesn't matter how great Dukakis' economic plan is, all voters can think about are these scum of the earth raping and killing again.

Picking complex issues like sentencing for political ads has always been a pet peeve of mine. Societies have been struggling with sentencing since justice systems have been in place and it is unlikely that a person can communicate his position and solution in 30 seconds. When I see candidates put ads that take a complex issue and dumb them down some strong emotions like fear or anger, I see the ads and the candidates as borderline deceptive. To me, there doesn't seem to be a way to communicate sentencing reform without appealing to emotion. I would prefer if candidates refrained from creating soundbites and frightening images to simplify extremely complex images.

Posted by: Adrienne C. | Oct 13, 2011 6:45:40 PM

While I would agree with a lot of what has already been said, I think it is also worthwhile to note that it’s not just the presidents that campaign that they’re “tough on crime.” At least from my experience, I know a lot of judges who are currently in office were once former prosecutors, be it for the county or for the feds. As such, I believe they more so than not tend to instinctually lean towards a philosophy that they should be “tough on crime,” especially if that was part of their campaign slogan. In this sense, when it comes to sentencing are the newly elected judges really going to try to be impartial fact finders and come to a truly just sentence or are their hands going to tilt a bit more towards a heavier sentence? While the discretion is up to them, I think it is curious how judges’ backgrounds can shape the outcome of their sentences.

On another point, I have always found it curious that on certain issues, no matter what a presidential candidate’s viewpoint is, I wonder what are they really going to do about it? Take the high crime rate for instance. Is the president really going to somehow magically decrease the amount of crime in the country by passing harsher sentencing laws? Like the wheels of commerce, I think crime is its own mechanism that cannot be controlled. Perhaps it can be guided, but it’s a beast of its own—one that I highly doubt can ever be fully controlled no matter what sentences we chose to impose.

Posted by: Isabella | Oct 17, 2011 10:17:42 PM

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