Bernie Sanders' Criminal Justice Plan Promises Radical Change to Prison Industrial Complex

In August, the Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren campaigns presented their proposals to reform the U.S. criminal justice system. Both plans are undeniably ambitious and more radical than the plans of any viable Presidential candidate in recent history. For instance, both plans commit to drastic reductions in the incarcerated population and reforms on police use of force and police accountability. Both plans address the failed drug war, and set out to end discriminatory practices like cash bail. They also call for demilitarizing the police, investing in prevention/diversion, and ending the aggressive criminalization of poverty, homelessness, addiction, and mental illness or disability.

However, Bernie Sanders’ 'Justice and Safety for All' plan is unique in that it carries an undercurrent of police and prison abolitionism. It also reflects a re-conceptualization of crime from a democratic socialist lens. These characteristics set the Sanders plan apart because of the opportunity it presents for system change.

Contemporary police and prison abolitionism emerged as a movement from below. It is defined by organizations like Critical Resistance (CR) as “a political vision with the goal of eliminating imprisonment, policing, and surveillance and creating lasting alternatives.” Formed in 1997 as a collective of activists, scholars, community members, and current/former prisoners in the San Francisco Bay Area, CR questioned the Prison Industrial Complex as a politically legitimate or practically useful solution to the many social problems it purports to solve.

Currently, abolitionism is a strong feature of the anti-capitalist and anti-racist left in the U.S., reflected in the policy platforms of organizations like the Movement for Black Lives, the work of scholar-activists including Angela Davis, Mariame Kaba, and Alex Vitale—author of The End of Policing (2017) and advisor to the Sanders campaign on criminal justice policy.

Abolitionists view policing, mass incarceration, and the broader legal system within socio-historical contexts as problematic tools of gendered social control, white supremacy, and class domination from their inception. They seek to end policing or incarceration and actively research, construct, and pursue more effective solutions to the complex social problems our legal system has failed to address.

In a similar vein, Sanders 'Justice and Safety for All' plan openly questions the capacity of the criminal justice system to fulfill what has become an ever increasing social role. It recognizes the inability of policing to address complex social problems.

According to the plan, there is a "need to shift our emphasis toward solving societal problems in ways that required less dependence on policing and incarceration by supporting alternative strategies to make individuals and communities safer and healthier.” The plan goes further to fund the creation of new community based public services such as “civilian corps of unarmed first responders" to provide sensible alternatives to failed policing strategies while reducing the social role and influence of police in civil society. This unarmed civilian alternative could save the lives of those suffering from untreated mental illness, who are 16 times more likely to be killed by a police officer. This can also stop a personal crisis from escalating to criminal sanction or an on-the-spot execution.

The creation of such alternatives can be a significant step in reducing police presence as an oppressive and destabilizing force in poor communities, undocumented communities, and communities of color.

The differences between the 'Justice and Safety for All' plan and the abolitionist movement are worth noting, however. For instance, the plan does not explicitly question the legitimacy of police and the broader capitalist state. And like much of the more radical left, the abolitionist movement is not necessarily focused on electoral politics as a social change strategy.

The Sanders plan is unique in that it demonstrates the increasing legitimacy of abolitionism in formal public policy debates and may provide opportunities for the abolitionist project in practice.

A second unique characteristic of the 'Justice and Safety for All' plan is that it re-conceptualizes crime through a democratic socialist lens. In opposition to the dominant reactionary approach to policing that focuses on the often violent sanction of individual “criminals,” a socialist framework views crime as directly related to poverty, and envisions the structures necessary to address those social problems and move toward preventative approaches to public safety.

Indeed, the 'Justice and Safety for All' platform includes an entire sub-section (“Investing in Our Communities”) where other defining policy proposals such as Medicare for All, a Federal Jobs Guarantee, and the $15 Minimum Wage appear. The 'Justice and Safety for All' plan takes steps to re-conceptualize crime and its construction. Relating criminal activity to problematic social systems such as racism or capitalism rather than individual pathology.

A democratic socialist lens allows for a critical understanding of crime and deviance as socially constructed and deeply connected to social relations.

Even beyond their criminal justice reform plan, the Sanders campaign challenges common conceptions of the “criminal” and who or what poses the greatest danger to our society. After Johnson and Johnson was fined over half a billion dollars in Oklahoma for their role in an opioid epidemic that the state estimates will cost $17 billion to address, Sanders argued for the criminal prosecution of company executives. Similarly, Sanders calls for the accountability and criminalization of fossil fuel company executives in his Green New Deal plan. He is the only Presidential candidate to argue for the nationalization of powerful energy companies as part of that plan. A democratic socialist lens not only reveals the ineffectiveness of criminalizing poverty. It also extends the reach of the system to prosecute the callous, destructive capital accumulation of corporations as a legitimate threat to public safety.

While promising to those on the left, it would be mistaken to think the 'Justice and Safety for All' plan is simply a result of Sanders’s consistently progressive policy stances, or that the plan’s promises will be realized without a powerful organized movement on the ground. Sanders, Warren, and other candidates are forced to grapple with a better educated, organized, and critically aware public on issues of criminal justice due to the work of the Black Lives Matter movement and the various successes of abolitionist organizations.

The JusticeLA coalition, for example, managed to stop the construction of a new $2.2 billion jail in August, forcing Los Angeles county to divert resources to treatment and alternatives to incarceration. And with each success, these more radical models for system change appear more relevant and viable in formal policy arenas. The abolitionist and stridently socialist elements that differentiate the 'Justice and Safety for All' plan will have the potential to build alternative systems that will guarantee change. Those interested in the abolitionist and/or socialist models for “justice” that make the Sanders plan so unique should not only analyze or endorse candidate platforms but build new and existing organizations designed to make these political policies a reality.

About the Author

William Armalineis the founding director of the Human Rights Program and an associate professor in the Department of Sociology and Interdisciplinary Social Sciences at San José State University. As an interdisciplinary scholar and public intellectual, Armaline’s interests, applied work, and scholarly publications address social problems as they relate to political economy, environmental sustainability, racism and anti-racist action, critical pedagogy and transformative education, inequality and youth, mass incarceration, and drug policy reform.