Four years ago, Republicans devoted a section in their platform to the War on Drugs, lamenting the "human toll of drug addiction and abuse" and vowing to "continue the fight against producers, traffickers, and distributor of illegal substances."
That plank is conspicuously missing from the GOP platform this year. The fight against illegal drugs is only mentioned in passing, mostly with reference to drug cartels and the ban on using controlled substances for doctor-assisted suicide.
Policy experts agree that the omission is significant. "This is less a 'tough on crime' document than you would have expected. And leaving out the War on Drugs [is] quite astounding," says Mark Kleiman, a crime policy expert and professor at UCLA. "It's a bit more of a libertarian attitude," says Marc Levin, who runs a conservative criminal justice reform project called "Right on Crime" that's attracted the support of Newt Gingrich and Grover Norquist.
What's more, the 2012 platform includes new provisions that emphasize the importance of rehabilitation and re-entry programs to help ex-prisoners integrate back into society—using language that Kleiman describes as "a lot less 'lock 'em up and throw away the key.'"
"While getting criminals off the street is essential, more attention must be paid to the process of restoring those individuals to the community," the platform says. "Prisons should do more than punish; they should attempt to rehabilitate and institute proven prisoner reentry systems to reduce recidivism and future victimization." The document also criticizes the "overcriminalization of behavior," though it doesn't elaborate on the point much further.
Both Kleiman and Levin believe it's partly the outgrowth of a prison-reform push on the part of GOP governors whose state budgets have been saddled with high incarceration expenses. In recent months, Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett, Ohio Gov. John Kasich, and Gov. Chris Christie have embraced crime reform legislation to support the kind of rehabilitation programs that the GOP platform now advocates, with some also reducing jail time for non-violent offenders. Conservative reformers like Levin are heartened by the changes. "We've gone a long way in four years," he says, crediting the growing interest in more cost-effective ways to tackle crime.
To be sure, there are still some aggressively "law-and-order" provisions in the platform, some of which go farther than the 2008 version. The previous platform called for mandatory sentences for "gang conspiracy crimes, violent or sexual offenses against children, rape, and assaults resulting in serious bodily injury." This year, the provision has been expanded to include all "gang crimes, repeat drug dealers, robbery, and murder."
But overall, the platform reveals a notable policy shift for the GOP, although it's hasn't been one that either side has mentioned much in this year's election.