Aug 18, 2019 - Politics & Policy

Bernie Sanders unveils sweeping criminal justice reform plan

Bernie Sanders on stage

Bernie Sanders. Photo: Paras Griffin/WireImage

Sen. Bernie Sanders on Sunday revealed a 6,000-word proposal for overhauling the criminal justice system, timed to coincide with the Democratic presidential candidate's 2-day trip to South Carolina.

The big picture: Sanders' sweeping plan, titled "Justice and Safety for All," promises to transform the criminal justice system in the U.S. by ending "profiteering" by corporations, reforming police and prison systems, investing in communities, and ending mass incarceration, among many other things.

"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. ... 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."

Some highlights from Sanders' plan:

  • End cash bail and civil asset forfeiture.
  • Ban for-profit prisons.
  • Increase the number of public defenders and funding to better serve certain communities.
  • Provide more support for law enforcement and unarmed non-law enforcement as an alternative response system for mental health emergencies.
  • Ban the use of facial recognition software in policing.
  • Conduct a U.S. Attorney General’s investigation whenever someone is killed in police custody. 
  • Create a "Prisoner Bill of Rights" for incarcerated people that would end solitary confinement and guarantee living wages, educational training and the right to vote.
  • End mandatory sentencing minimums and "three strikes" laws.
  • Abolish the death penalty.
  • Legalize marijuana.
  • Stop the criminalization of homelessness and spend more than $25 billion over 5 years to end homelessness.

Between the lines: Sanders has long supported banning private prisons and ending mass incarceration, but has recently been pushing broader criminal justice reform in an effort to appeal more to voters of color. South Carolina is a key early voting state with an African American population of 27.8%, far higher than other early states like Nevada (9.1%), Iowa (3.4%) and New Hampshire (1.5%), per CNN.

Several other candidates have laid out plans on how to reform the criminal justice system, which has become something of a bipartisan priority.

  • Former Vice President Joe Biden detailed in July his plan to help states eliminate mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent crimes.
  • Sen. Elizabeth Warren also wants to ban private prisons and detention centers and hold "corporate criminals" accountable.
  • In July, Pete Buttigieg unveiled a "racial justice" plan to ban federal private prisons and to reduce incarceration by 50% on the federal and state level.

Go deeper: Axios' special report on the business of mass incarceration

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