Bernie Sanders says free college is part of his plan to end mass incarceration

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Bernie Sanders' remarks at BET's Presidential Justice Forum, a bipartisan event focused on criminal justice reform, made one thing clear about the Democratic presidential candidate's campaign: he's learned a lot in the last few months.


Here's how Sanders opened his speech:

I’m going to start with an issue that is on everyone’s mind, the continuing struggle for racial justice in America. Let’s start with horrible facts:

If current trends continue, one in four black males born today can expect to spend time in prison during their lifetime. This is an unspeakable tragedy. Blacks are imprisoned at six times the rate of whites. People of color are incarcerated, policed, and sentenced to death at significantly higher rates than their white counterparts. One in every 15 African-American men is incarcerated, compared to one in every 106 white men. The Department of Justice found that blacks were three times more likely to be searched during a traffic stop, compared to white motorists. […]

These are shocking statistics to say the least. But before we even address those we have to deal with the most urgent and obvious issue that needs to be addressed head on. And that is the killing of African-Americans by police or deaths while in custody.


This is a considerable change in approach. Back in April, Sanders referred to the protests that erupted in Baltimore in response to the killing of Freddie Gray as primarily a "state and local issue." He called for police reforms, but quickly pivoted to poverty and unemployment.

“What we’ve got to do as a nation is understand that we have got to create millions of jobs to put people back to work, to make sure kids are in schools, not in jails,” Sanders said on CNN at the time.

This lack of focus on racial justice, particularly at a moment when Baltimore, Ferguson, and the names of the young black people killed by police were on the nation's lips, moved activists with Black Lives Matter to disrupt a number of Sanders' campaign events over the summer.

It was a direct result of those protests that Sanders' campaign released a racial justice platform, and, in the ensuing months, developed an explicit vocabulary to discuss issues of police violence, the school to prison pipeline, and glaring racial disparities in the criminal justice system.


All of which was front and center in Sanders' remarks on Saturday.

"[P]eople must do more than just echo the phrase Black Lives Matter," Sanders said. "We must put actions behind those words. Actions that will bring about the fundamental reform that is needed in the face of this crisis. Criminal justice reform must be the civil rights issue of the 21st century and the most first piece has to be police reform. The killings of African-Americans has got to stop."


Then he launched into what those actions would be, a wide-ranging and highly specific set of proposals, including body cameras, public records of deaths in police custody, funding to incentivize new policing standards, and taking marijuana off the federal list of controlled substances.

But Sanders' platform to address the over incarceration of black Americans touched on more than just the criminal justice system itself. Sanders also focused on access to education and free public tuition—a major applause line among the students at Allen University, the oldest historically black college in the state and the host of the forum.


"We need to take a hard look at the education system. Black students attended schools with higher concentrations of first-year teachers, compared with white students," Sanders said. "Black students were more than three times as likely to attend schools where fewer than 60 percent of teachers meet all state certification and licensure requirements. We need to give our children, regardless of their income a fair shot at attending college, that’s why I support making college education free for all public universities."

He also hit on the minimum wage and the wealth gap between white and black Americans:

The black unemployment rate has remained roughly twice as high as the white rate over the last 40 years, regardless of education. According to a recent analysis by Pew Research Center, the average African-American household has a total net worth–the value of all of assets minus your debts–of just $11,000. Meanwhile, the average white family has a net worth of $141,900.

This is unacceptable. We need to take bold steps to stop the increased impoverishment of already depressed communities. For instance, we need to raise the minimum wage. Raising it over a period of a few years to a living wage of $15 an hour would give about 50 percent of African-American workers a raise.


The Sanders campaign of four months ago might have led with these issues, sticking to the language of economic justice that defined most of his early campaign. But that frame would have left him ill-equipped to respond to the urgent questions about mass incarceration, police violence, and systemic racism being raised at the forum.

What a difference protest—and a few months—can make.

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