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Where the top 2020 Democrats stand on criminal justice reform

This image is a four-way split screen showing candidates in the following orders: Booker, Harris, Biden, and Sanders.
Sen. Cory Booker, former VP Joe Biden, Sen. Kamala Harris, and Sen. Bernie Sanders. Photos: Sean Rayford/Getty Images, Spencer Platt/Getty Image, and Mark Makela/Getty Images

Eight 2020 Democratic candidates penned essays for the Brennan Center's collection, "Ending Mass Incarceration: Ideas from Today's Leaders," highlighting their personal priorities to tackle an issue with a history of bipartisan support.

The big picture: Most candidates are showing a united front on legalizing marijuana, limiting mass incarceration, and easing formerly incarcerated people back into society. Other candidates are taking a single-issue approach, like Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand's focus on incarcerated women and former HUD Secretary Julián Castro's vision for federal housing.

The breakdown

Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) is focused on passing the Next Step Act, which he describes as the follow up to the First Step Act signed into law by Trump in 2018. He's also proposed using executive action to offer clemency to thousands of nonviolent drug offenders on his first day in office.

  • The Next Step Act aims to reduce "the disparity between crack and powder cocaine sentences," reduce sentences for nonviolent drug offenses, end "the federal prohibition on marijuana" and reinvest in communities impacted by "the failed War on Drugs."
  • It also aims to reinstate the right to vote in federal elections for formerly incarcerated people, improve reporting on police use-of-force, decrease prison populations and crime in states through federal grants and prohibit employers from asking job applicants about criminal histories until final parts of an interview.

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) prioritizes "the unique challenges our criminal justice system creates for women." She is seeking to bolster protections for incarcerated pregnant women, end the cash bail system, and create "alternatives to prison for lower-level, nonviolent crimes," including first-time drug possession charges.

Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) says prosecutors should "shift success measures" to "reducing unnecessary imprisonment, reducing racial disparities, and lowering recidivism rates" to help reduce mass incarceration. She also advocates for increased funds for public defenders and extending the constitutional right to counsel to civil cases related to housing, health care and domestic violence.

  • Yes, but: As California's former attorney general, Harris faced criticism for promoting policies like a truancy law that jailed parents whose children skipped school, among other tough-on-crime policies. She recently said she regrets the "unintended consequences" of the 2010 law.

Former HUD Secretary Julián Castro sees federal housing policy as a means through which criminal justice reform can be achieved. He promotes providing federal housing protection for people with criminal records and monitoring disproportionate police presence in communities of color and "racially segregated communities."

Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) is focused on expanding funding for drug courts to treat drug addiction for nonviolent offenders, since she believes addiction is an underlying cause of recidivism. Klobuchar also wants to pass "CARA 2.0," a follow-up to 2016's Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act (CARA). The new bill would request $1 billion to "support evidence-based prevention, enforcement, treatment, and recovery programs."

Former Rep. Beto O’Rourke: wants to end the federal prohibition on marijuana and expunge criminal records of people convicted for possession. He also wants to eliminate private for-profit prisons, end the cash bail system, and reduce recidivism through "strong rehabilitation services, counseling, and access to preventative health care."

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) is focused on abolishing private for-profit prisons, but he also advocates for ending the cash bail system and allowing easier reintegration for formerly incarcerated people into society. Sanders also believes that convicted felons should be able to vote while in prison.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) wants to ban private prisons and detention facilities, citing John Jelly — Trump's former chief of staff — as one actor who allegedly profits from immigration detention centers. Specifically, she wants to end "all contracts that the Bureau of Prisons, ICE, and the U.S. Marshals Service have with private detention providers."

Former Vice President Joe Biden did not write an essay for the Brennan Center, but has expressed regret for supporting tough-on-crime bills during his time in Congress, including a measure that established strict sentencing standards for crack and powder cocaine offenses. Experts say that measure led to an era of mass incarceration that disproportionately affected black Americans.

  • He denied that his 1994 crime bill, which introduced the federal 3-strikes law, contributed to mass incarceration.
  • Biden also has a history of being anti-marijuana and has called it a "gateway drug." While vice president, he supported decriminalization rather than legalization. He now says he regrets supporting the 1988 Anti-Drug Abuse Act, per the NYT.
  • Biden's campaign website says he aims to "eliminate racial disparities at every stage" and "get rid of sentencing practices that don’t fit the crime" in order to reform the criminal justice system, but he has yet to propose specific policies.

Go deeper: Factsheets on every 2020 candidate