Senator Bernie Sanders (D-Vermont) recently released the most robust criminal justice reform plan in the 2020 cycle to date.
According to Sanders’ campaign manager, Faiz Shakir, the comprehensive platform would seek to ensure the freedom of roughly half the U.S. prison population, which currently stands at roughly 2.3 million inmates. The 6,000-word proposal on Sanders’ campaign website calls for doing everything from eliminating the cash bail system (as California has already done), repealing mandatory minimum sentencing and three-strikes laws, to expanding sentencing alternatives, like drug rehabilitation treatment and community supervision.
The Vermont senator is even proposing to take action to end homelessness by allocating $25 billion in resources over a five-year period, which includes expanding existing anti-homelessness grants and increasing funding to programs that connect the homeless to available resources in their communities. According to the Connecticut Coalition to End Homelessness, roughly 15% of the 11 million Americans detained or incarcerated in jails each year reported experiencing homelessness. And former inmates tend to become homeless after release, given traditional barriers to employment that formerly incarcerated Americans often face.
“We have a system that imprisons and destroys the lives of millions of people,” Sanders told the Associated Press. “It’s racist in disproportionately affecting the African American and Latino communities, and it’s a system that needs fundamental change.”
As a nation, the United States incarcerates far more people per capita than any other country in the world. According to statistics compiled by the International Centre for Prison Studies, 737 of every 100,000 residents in the U.S. are in jail, compared to just 615 for Russia and just 118 for China.
One significant contributor to the United States’ high inmate population is the number of people serving time for nonviolent, drug-related offenses. Common Sense for Drug Policy — a nonprofit aimed at reforming the criminal justice system and making drug laws less punitive — calculated that as of December 2016, there were more than 43,000 inmates behind bars simply for drug possession. Roughly 144,000 other inmates were serving time for other drug-related offenses, like sale or manufacturing. There are also nearly one million people on probation for a drug offense, meaning that any small infraction could land them in jail.
Sanders’ criminal justice platform calls for revising U.S. drug policy to depend less on the jail system and more on rehabilitative efforts. Should it be passed into law, Sanders’ plan would legalize marijuana, provide “safe injection” sites, and “end the sentencing disparity between crack and cocaine” (crack, which a different form of cocaine, carries longer jail sentences and tends to be more prevalent in black communities whereas cocaine is more prevalent in white communities and usually carries lesser sentences).
The 2020 presidential hopeful also addressed the “school-to-prison pipeline” in his plan, which is the system that tends to result in more black youth being subjected to the juvenile justice system than white youth — which in turn leads to higher adult incarceration for young black adults compared to young white adults. As Grit Post has previously reported, black girls are four times as likely to be arrested in school than their white counterparts, with an arrest rate of 40% despite making up just 13% of the average population of girls in schools.
Some of the main components of the Sanders’ justice plan for addressing the school-to-prison pipeline include banning trying children who are under age 18 as adults, reforming juvenile detention facilities to be geared toward “rehabilitation and growth,” ending the jailing of juveniles for misdemeanor offenses, and decriminalizing truancy — which Senator Kamala Harris (D-California) once bragged about doing when she served as San Francisco, California’s District Attorney.
“Black and brown students and students with disabilities are more likely to be subjected to exclusionary discipline measures than their peers,” the Sanders campaign website stated. “When a child is pushed out of school they lose instructional time and are more likely to become involved with the juvenile and adult justice systems.”
Sen. Sanders will likely be asked about his plan during the next round of Democratic presidential debates next month in Houston, Texas.
(Featured image: Laurie Shaull/Wikimedia Commons)
Tom Cahill is a contributor for Grit Post who covers political and economic news. He lives in Bend, Oregon. Send him an email at tom DOT v DOT cahill AT gmail DOT com.