Criminal justice issues showing up in 2016 presidential race

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Clinton Campaign Calls for Criminal Justice Reform

WASHINGTON (AP) — On the campaign trail, among candidates of both parties, the idea of locking up drug criminals for life is a lot less popular than it was a generation ago.

The 2016 presidential race has accelerated an evolution away from the traditional tough-on-crime candidate. A Republican Party that's long taken a law-and-order stance finds itself desperate to improve its standing among minority voters. Democratic candidates are also being drawn into national conversations on policing, drug crimes and prison costs.

SEE MORE: Carson questions claims of racial bias against police

With criminal justice issues intruding into election season, the "Just Say No" message of the Reagan administration and the "three strikes" sentencing law developed a decade later under President Bill Clinton have given way to concerns over bloated prison costs, the racial inequities of harsh drug punishments and how police interact with their communities.

But even among those in both parties who support changing the criminal justice system, there's no consensus on how to do it and candidates are scrambling to differentiate themselves on what law and order means.

See some of the GOP candidates on the campaign trail:

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Criminal justice issues showing up in 2016 presidential race
AMES, IA - JULY 18:  Republican presidential hopeful and former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee fields questions at The Family Leadership Summit at Stephens Auditorium on July 18, 2015 in Ames, Iowa. According to the organizers the purpose of The Family Leadership Summit is to inspire, motivate, and educate conservatives.  (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)
Jeb Bush, former governor of Florida and Republican 2016 U.S. presidential candidate, speaks to the media following a campaign stop outside a residence in Washington, Iowa, U.S., on Wednesday, June 17, 2015. Bush, Marco Rubio, and Rand Paul are leading the Republican pack as most electable against Democrat Hillary Clinton in three swing states, according to a new poll with provocative implications for the crowded GOP primary. (Photo by Daniel Acker/Bloomberg via Getty Images)
AYR, SCOTLAND - JULY 30:  Republican Presidential Candidate Donald Trump visits his Scottish golf course Turnberry on July 30, 2015 in Ayr, Scotland. Donald Trump will answer questions from the media at a press conference where reporters will be limited to questions just about golf.  (Photo by Jan Kruger/Getty Images)
AMES, IA - JULY 18:  Republican presidential hopeful Senator Ted Cruz of Texas fields questions at The Family Leadership Summit at Stephens Auditorium on July 18, 2015 in Ames, Iowa. According to the organizers the purpose of The Family Leadership Summit is to inspire, motivate, and educate conservatives.  (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)
Ben Carson, Republican 2016 U.S. presidential candidate, pauses while speaking during The Family Leadership Summit in Ames, Iowa, U.S., on Saturday, July 18, 2015. The sponsor, The FAMiLY LEADER, is a "pro-family, pro-marriage, pro-life organization which champions the principle that God is the ultimate leader of the family." (Photo by Daniel Acker/Bloomberg via Getty Images)
AMES, IA - JULY 18:  Republican presidential candidate Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker fields questions at The Family Leadership Summit at Stephens Auditorium on July 18, 2015 in Ames, Iowa. According to the organizers, the purpose of The Family Leadership Summit is to inspire, motivate, and educate conservatives.  (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)
Chris Christie, governor of New Jersey, speaks during the Faith and Freedom Coalition's "Road to Majority" conference in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Friday, June 19, 2015. The annual Faith & Freedom Coalition Policy Conference gives top-tier presidential contenders as well as long shots a chance to compete for the large evangelical Christian base in the crowded Republican primary contest. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Bloomberg via Getty Images)
John Kasich, governor of Ohio, speaks while announcing he will seek the 2016 Republican presidential nomination in Columbus, Ohio, U.S., on Tuesday, July 21, 2015. Kasich, seeking to emerge from a crowded Republican presidential field as a practical and compassionate leader from a must-win swing state, is joins 15 other Republicans who have declared their candidacies. (Photo by Luke Sharrett/Bloomberg via Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - JUNE 01:  U.S. Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) does a live interview with ABC News in the Russell Senate Office Building rotunda on Capitol Hill June 1, 2015 in Washington, DC. In protest of the National Security Agency's sweeping program to collect U.S. citizens' telephone metadata, Paul blocked an extension of some parts of the USA PATRIOT Act, allowing them to lapse at 12:01 a.m. Monday. The Senate will continue to work to restore the lapsed authorities by amending a House version of the bill and getting it to President Obama later this week.  (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
Senator Marco Rubio, a Republican from Florida and 2016 U.S. presidential candidate, waits to begin a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Thursday, July 23, 2015. Senator Bob Corker, a key player in the congressional debate over the nuclear deal with Iran, told Secretary of State John Kerry that the Obama administration is engaging in hyperbole to sell it. (Photo by Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images)
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"You don't have everyone saying they're tough on crime," said Inimai Chettiar of the Brennan Center for Justice in New York, which advocates reducing prison populations. "Instead, you have people offering different policy solutions."

The Paris attacks have at least temporarily thrust national security to the forefront of the presidential race, but criminal justice issues have been periodically popping up, particularly among Democrats, in a year of tumult in U.S. cities. In the Republican field, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul has been out front in seeking to "break the cycle of incarceration for non-violent ex-offenders."

The push to rethink sentences for drug offenders is coinciding with the Black Lives Matter movement and its debate about police treatment of minorities, a heroin crisis that's brought renewed attention to addiction and a homicide spike in some big cities. Sometimes that mix of issues defies consistency.

SEE MORE: Obama gets personal in criminal justice push

Republican Chris Christie, the New Jersey governor and a former federal prosecutor, has preached treatment rather than prison for drug addicts and spoken sympathetically of a law school friend who died from a painkiller habit. But when it comes to discussing policing, he accuses President Barack Obama's administration of "allowing lawlessness to reign" and tells law enforcement "I'll have your back," suggesting that Obama doesn't.

Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, a fellow Republican, criticizes harsh mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenders. But last month he voted against legislation that would make nonviolent drug offenders eligible for shorter prison sentences, saying he was concerned it could also benefit violent felons.

And while Florida Sen. Marco Rubio has endorsed a review of the criminal code and decried "selective enforcement" of the law, he wrote in an essay for a Brennan Center book this year that drug laws had helped restore "law and order to America's cities" and that shorter drug-crime sentences should be approached with caution.

Support for more lenient sentencing from Republican members of Congress and wealthy conservative backers such as the Koch brothers has made it easier for budget-minded presidential candidates to support sentencing policy changes. It's not clear, though, how much benefit candidates gain from pressing the issue with average voters, said Fergus Cullen, former chairman of the New Hampshire Republican Party.

SEE MORE: Clinton to call for criminal justice reform in New York speech

Some leading candidates such as Donald Trump hardly mention the issue on the campaign trail, and Ben Carson, the sole Republican participant in a recent candidate forum on criminal justice, said he was still waiting to see evidence of racial bias by police.

"The Republican primary voters are not a soft-hearted bunch when it comes to criminal justice issues, and I don't think there are a lot of voters to be had," Cullen said.

Democratic candidates are more unified in their embrace of the Black Lives Matter movement and of overall change to the criminal justice system.

After Baltimore's riots in April, Hillary Rodham Clinton, the Democratic front-runner whose husband promoted a more conventional tough-on-crime stance, called the criminal justice system "out of balance" and urged an end to "mass incarceration." More recently, she proposed lifting restrictions on getting marijuana for medical studies and said it should be reclassified by the government to allow federally sponsored research into its effects.

Her rival, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, has called for accountability for police officers who "kill people who are unarmed" and suggested moving forward with marijuana legalization.

It's all a big change from a generation or two ago.

"The threat of someone waging a 'tough on crime' campaign as their calling card is, I think, very much diminished from what we might have seen 20 years ago," said Marc Mauer, executive director of the Sentencing Project, which advocates sentencing policy changes.

The "reform movement" has strong enough support, Mauer said, "that it would make it difficult for a candidate to try to make hay out of it."

It's not clear how rising homicide rates in some cities will affect efforts to remake the criminal justice system, especially since there's no consensus about what's caused the trend or whether it will last. FBI Director James Comey said recently that if the trend continued, "we will be back to talking about how law enforcement needs to help rescue black neighborhoods from the grip of violence."

"All lives matter too much for us to let that happen," he said.

It also remains to be seen how campaign-trail rhetoric will translate into policy or how committed a future president will be in pushing for sentencing changes. But issues of criminal justice that in many ways were once considered local concerns are, at least for now, in play on the national level.

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Follow Eric Tucker on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/etuckerAP

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