Bernie Sanders Unveils Sweeping Criminal Justice Reform Plan

Photo: Meg Kinnard (AP)

Sen. Bernie Sanders unveiled on Sunday a broad plan to overhaul the country’s criminal justice system that includes the goal of reducing the prison population by half.

Among the proposals, which Sanders announced during a campaign stop in Columbia, SC, are putting an end to the for-profit prison system, legalizing marijuana, ending the federal death penalty and urging states to do the same, and banning the cash bail system, which jails hundreds of thousands of poor people each year.

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“America is now the world’s leading jailer. We lock up more than 2 million people in America, which is more of our own people than any country on Earth,” his campaign website states.

In South Carolina, Sanders acknowledged that people in U.S. prisons are “disproportionately poor, disproportionately minority — African American, Latino, Native American,” The Washington Post reported.

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Ahead of the plan’s public release, the Vermont senator told the Associated Press that the U.S. justice system is “racist” and “needs fundamental change.”

He announced his proposals at a town hall in Columbia, before about 300 people.

Sanders wants to do away with “three strikes” laws and expand alternative sentencing, according to the AP. Part of criminal justice reform also would include better care for mental health issues, a major contributor to the country’s burgeoning prison population.

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Per the Sanders campaign:

Due to the historical legacy of institutional racism in this country, mass incarceration disproportionately falls on the shoulders of black and brown people in America. In fact, black Americans are incarcerated at five times the rate of white Americans, and even though people use drugs like marijuana at roughly the same rates across all races, black Americans are nearly four times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than white Americans. These disparities pervade every aspect of the criminal justice system. Black Americans, and especially young black men, are more likely to be stopped by the police, subjected to excessive force, arrested, and jailed than whites.

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If elected, Sanders said he would work to hold law enforcement officers accountable by calling for more oversight, particularly via the Justice Department. He would create a federal database of deadly police shootings and establish federal standards for the use of body cameras. He also would “mandate criminal liability for civil rights violations resulting from police misconduct.”

Additionally, he would stop the absurd federal programs that provide military equipment to local police departments.

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Sanders also said he would ban for-profit prisons, which allow corporations to profit from “the suffering of incarcerated people and their families.”

And he would finally end the country’s so-called drug war, including expunging past marijuana convictions and investing profits from legal marijuana sales in the communities that were adversely affected by decades-old anti-drug strategies.

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The plan also calls for more funding for health services to treat addiction with no copays or deductibles through a proposed Medicare for All program.

“We must end the school-to-prison pipeline,” his campaign stated.

Sanders called his plan “perhaps the boldest criminal justice reform package in the history of United States politics,” according to the Post.

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South Carolina follows Iowa and New Hampshire in next year’s primaries, and about 55% of the state’s Democratic electorate is black. As a presidential candidate in 2016, Sanders struggled to connect with black voters, the newspaper noted.

Other 2020 Democratic candidates that have unveiled criminal justice reform proposals in recent months include Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Cory Booker, and former Vice President Joe Biden.

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