A pair of long-shot presidential hopefuls fielded questions Tuesday on immigration, mental health and drug policy at a meeting of law enforcement officials in Baltimore.
Former Virginia Sen. Jim Webb, a Democrat, and retired Johns Hopkins neurosurgeon Ben Carson, a Republican, told an annual conference of the National Sheriffs' Association that, if elected, they would seek ways to reduce prison populations and address the high share of nonviolent drug offenders caught up in the criminal justice system.
Webb, a centrist Democrat and Naval Academy graduate who served a single term in the Senate, has not declared his candidacy but told the group Tuesday that he plans to "get a lot busier over the next week or so." He later told reporters he expects to announce a decision in the next few days.
"If you're looking for the kind of leadership that would change the national dialogue on this discussion, we've shown it," said Webb, a former secretary of the Navy. "The type of leadership that you would look for, I hope, is the type that will take on controversial issues that other people don't want to talk about."
Carson, a former Baltimore County resident who now lives in Florida, told the group that the unrest in Baltimore in April following the death of Freddie Gray, who died after suffering a spinal cord injury while in police custody, was due partly to high unemployment in the city. Baltimore residents, he said, hear about an improved national economy but don't see it in their neighborhoods.
"I think what's going on is a great deal of frustration," said Carson, who was making his second appearance in Maryland since the rioting. "Over the last few years there's been a lot of change, but not a lot of hope."
Webb did not address the unrest in Baltimore directly. Instead, the Democrat spoke mainly about his unsuccessful effort in the Senate to overhaul the criminal justice system and reform drug laws.
The forum, held at the Baltimore Hilton, was the first of its kind organized by the Virginia-based sheriffs' group. Its leaders invited dozens of presidential candidates — as well as potential contenders — but only three showed. In addition to Carson and Webb, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, a Republican, spoke to the group Monday.
Carson and Webb differed sharply over a program that supplies local law enforcement with surplus military equipment, an initiative that became controversial in the days following the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., last year.
Webb said he feels the country should not "give the impression to local communities that we are militarizing our local law enforcement."
Carson, by contrast, said "we need to do everything we can to protect our police officers. They need to use whatever equipment they deem necessary to protect themselves."
Several attendees asked about immigration. Many sheriffs, particularly those in counties along the U.S. border with Mexico, deal with the flow of immigrants directly.
Carson said he supports granting working papers — but not citizenship — to the estimated 11 million people in the country illegally. But, he said, he would do so only once the nation's borders are "sealed."
"Give them an opportunity to become guest workers so they can at least come out of the shadows," he said.
Webb hedged on a series of questions about President Barack Obama's decision last year to delay deportation of some immigrants. Asked whether he supported the effort, now tied up in federal court, Webb instead discussed the broader immigration debate.
Asked for clarification, Webb said he thought Obama's actions were legal but isn't sure if he would continue them.
Both candidates said they are concerned about the high number of mentally ill people in prisons. Webb said he would sign an executive order creating the same commission on criminal justice that he attempted to establish with his Senate legislation.
He then shifted his answer to those who are locked up for minor drug offenses.
"Just as in mental health issues, I don't think it makes a lot of sense to put somebody in jail when they have a disease, when they have an illness," he said. "There have got to be better ways for us to approach the issues of drug use in America."
Carson seemed to agree, saying "zero-tolerance" drug policies were ineffective because they landed nonviolent drug users in a correction system that he described as "criminal university."