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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 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. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) released a proposal this month outlining her plan to end mass incarceration by legalizing marijuana, ending cash bail, providing adequate rehabilitation programs for felons to integrate back into society and eliminating the federal death penalty.

  • Harris has said 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.) released a' sweeping plan, titled "Justice and Safety for All," promising 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. Sanders also believes that convicted felons should be able to vote while in prison.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) has called for repealing the 1994 crime bill and wrote in a Medium post that too many people are sent to jail for too long, without any means of rehabilitation. Warren centers her justice plan around public safety, substance abuse, mental health care, juvenile crime, homelessness and cleaning up corporate crime, among other things.

Former Vice President Joe Biden's criminal justice plan emphasizes the need to shift from incarceration to prevention. He 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