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Photo by FelonsGetHired.com, Creative Commons license 2.0

In the last week, both Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren released plans for criminal justice reform, joining a big crowd of Democratic candidates with proposals to fix our dysfunctional justice system. Whoever gets the nomination, there's no shortage of good ideas that deserve action if WHEN Dems take back the White House and Senate in 2020. The Warren and Sanders plans join similarly ambitious calls for remaking criminal justice from Joe Biden, Cory Booker, and Amy Klobuchar. (it's a priority for Kamala Harris too, but she hasn't yet released a full policy paper.) On the whole, the plans emphasize reducing incarceration for low-level offenses (especially nonviolent drug charges), orienting prisons toward rehabilitation and reducing re-offense rates, and reforming institutional structures to address the worst crimes, as opposed to just routinely locking up the poor, black and brown people, and people with mental illnesses.

We appreciate a good epigraph as much as anyone, and for this topic, it would be hard to top the quote that leads off the Sanders plan. It's from Nelson Mandela, who knew a thing or 27 years about prison: "It is said that no one truly knows a nation until one has been inside its jails."


And by that standard, what kind of country are we? We're the kind of country that locks up a greater percentage of our population than any other country -- not just industrialized democracies, but we also have a greater per capita prison rate than China, Russia, or Iran. We're number one! Black and brown people are imprisoned far out of proportion to their share of the population, thanks in part to disparities in prosecution and sentencing, especially for drug crimes.

So what do we do about it? Hoo boy, so many ideas! A quick caveat: We're only hitting the candidates who've released policy papers so far, so we may skip over some candidates' terrific but more piecemeal ideas to hit particular issues. And we're only skimming on a loose deadline here, so if we don't mention a particular topic of interest to you, don't assume the candidates haven't hit it -- go look at the plans! (But feel free to yell at us for not including it because we are lazy!)

Ending Mass Incarceration

All the plans set a goal of reversing the mass incarceration that resulted from the 1994 crime law and mandatory minimum sentences -- including the proposals from Biden and Sanders, who both voted for that law (although Sanders expressed reservations about parts of it at the time). Sanders calls for a concrete goal of "cutting the incarcerated population in half," which his campaign clarified means not just at the federal level, but for states, too. That's a particularly big challenge, since the federal prison system, which presidents can affect directly through clemency and executive orders, only accounts for about 12 percent of the incarcerated population.

Biden's plan would devote $20 billion to a grant program aimed at encouraging states to reduce incarceration and crime, based on a proposal from the Brennan Center. Warren calls for an outright repeal of the 1994 Crime Bill (while keeping the good parts of it, like the Violence Against Women Act, and bringing back the assault weapons ban).

Booker and Klobuchar both focus on steps that can be taken unilaterally by the executive branch, like setting up an independent clemency board to review requests to shorten sentences of federal prisoners. That idea is also a key component of the proposals from Sanders, Warren, and Biden. As you may have already gathered, there's a lot of cross-pollination in all these plans. Yes, and virtually everyone wants to end cash bail, too.

There's actually one candidate who explicitly calls for imprisoning just a few more people: Elizabeth Warren wants to charge and lock-em-up a select group of corporate criminals, like bankers or drug company CEOs whose business practices wreck people's lives. We're actually OK with that.

Be Gentle To The Gentle Bud

Everybody wants federal sentencing reform, to eliminate racial sentencing disparities (such as the different penalties for crack and powder cocaine), and to start undoing the legacy of the War on Drugs. Virtually all the candidates point out that even when sentences seem "colorblind," the application of the law is far from equal. Blacks and whites use marijuana at roughly the same rate, but black people are arrested four times as often. No big surprise: all the candidates with justice reform plans want to decriminalize (Biden) or outright legalize marijuana (Sanders, Harris, Warren, Booker, and darn near everyone else). Most candidates also want to expunge criminal records for anyone convicted of marijuana use.

As for hard drugs, the consensus of the 2020 Dems is that we need to stop criminalizing addiction and get people into treatment, not prisons. And to get treatment for people who are in prison, too. Sanders touts Medicare for All as an avenue to fight addiction, and goes even farther, calling for safe injection sites and needle exchange programs. And all the candidates call for increased use of drug courts and diversion programs to get nonviolent drug offenders into treatment instead of the penal system.

Education And Health Care

Another near-universal point: Mental illness is a health issue, not something that should be left to law enforcement and prisons. Here's Warren -- as a f'rinstance of the consensus, not a unique view:

Historically, 7–10% of police encounters involve a person affected by mental illness, and people with untreated severe mental illness are sixteen times more likely to be killed during a police encounter. People with mental illnesses are not incarcerated at higher rates because they are prone to violence. To the contrary, most are arrested for non-violent offenses, many because they lack access to necessary services.

Everyone wants more community-based care. Those who want single-payer note that their plans would cover treatment, and Biden, who would instead expand Obamacare, wants increased funding for mental health and social services at all levels, including expanded funding for social workers and counselors in the schools. On a related note, all the plans call for police to get better training in dealing with people with mental illnesses and physical and developmental disabilities, because no one should be shot dead for being deaf or autistic and "failing to comply."

And you'd better believe all the candidates call for an end to the "school-to-prison pipeline," with calls to limit biased discipline, stop suspending black kids from preschool for chrissake, and get the Education Department's Office of Civil Rights back into the business of cracking down on discrimination in education. And in the carceral system, how about we could actually restore prisoners' rights to GED and community college classes, which have a proven record of reducing recidivism?

And there's a lot more, like restoring felons' voting rights after (or during) their sentences, taking steps to end employment discrimination against former prisoners, the need to keep cops honest and demilitarize policing, and so on. As we say, we're only hitting some of the highlights here, and now we are arbitrarily stopping before this post takes all damn day!

[Team Warren on Medium / Bernie Sanders / Joe Biden / Cory Booker on Medium / Amy Klobuchar (at CNN) / Kamala Harris / Vox on Sanders / Vox on Warren / Vox on Biden / CNBC / Photo: Michael Scott for FelonsGetHired.com, Creative Commons License 2.0]

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Doktor Zoom

Doktor Zoom's real name is Marty Kelley, and he lives in the wilds of Boise, Idaho. He is not a medical doctor, but does have a real PhD in Rhetoric. You should definitely donate some money to this little mommyblog where he has finally found acceptance and cat pictures. He is on maternity leave until 2033. Here is his Twitter, also. His quest to avoid prolixity is not going so great.

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