Bernie Sanders Unveils Plan to Overhaul the Nation's Criminal Justice System

Bernie Sanders released a wide-ranging proposal to reform the country’s criminal justice system and purge it of “institutional racism and corporate profiteering.”

The proposal was released on August 18 at a campaign stop in Columbia, South Carolina. Sanders’ new platform criticizes America’s criminal justice system as an “overly-punitive approach to public safety.”

Sanders seeks to make significant changes to mass incarceration, cash bail, the private prison system, policing, and the criminalization of drugs. He also hopes to improve jails, reform prisons, and tackle the challenges formerly incarcerated people face after being released.

“We have a criminal justice system that is racist and broken, and working together we’re going to fundamentally transform it,” said Sanders, a Vermont independent running as a Democratic presidential candidate.

As president, Sanders vowed to ban for-profit prisons, audit the practices of commissaries, and incentivize states and local communities to end law enforcement’s dependency on fines and fees for revenue.

The plan noted that corporations and police departments make “billions in fines and fees from disadvantaged communities,” and those fines or fees can lead to people spending more time incarcerated. “We must end the practice of corporations profiting off the suffering of incarcerated people and their families,” Sanders’ proposal said. “The private industry is growing — and so are the horror stories.”

Along with tackling fines and fees, Sanders also wants to end cash bail. The Vermont senator previously introduced a bill, called the No Money Bail Act of 2018, to eliminate cash bail and “end the criminalization of poverty.” Sanders’ plan would “end the use of secured bonds in federal criminal proceedings,” ban law enforcement from profiting off civil asset forfeiture, and hold back funding from states that proceeded to use the cash bail system.

The system of cash bail is already being challenged around the country. New York lawmakers and Governor Andrew Cuomo introduced legislation in April that would eliminate cash bail for a majority of criminal charges but keep the system for violent and Class A felonies, including aggravated murder, terrorism, arson, and kidnapping.

In April, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) filed a class action lawsuit against Detroit’s 36th District Court over cash bail. The organization argued that the cash bail system is unconstitutional and discriminatory against poor people.

Sanders echoed those sentiments in his proposal. “Hundreds of thousands of incarcerated people in America have not been convicted of a crime and are solely in jail because they can’t afford their bail,” the plan noted. “We are criminalizing poverty.”

Under Sanders’ plan, policing would undergo serious changes from the Department of Justice, all the way down to local police departments. Sanders would establish “strict guidelines and independent oversight for all federal funds used by police departments,” start a federal database documenting police use of deadly force, and create federal standards for body camera usage.

The attorney general would also investigate every single time a person is killed in police custody.

The plan aims to tackle mass incarceration, particularly in regards to drug-related incarceration. Sanders promised to end excessive sentencing, hoping to eventually halve the incarcerated population; stop mandatory sentencing minimums; and revamp the executive clemency process by establishing an independent clemency board under the White House.

A Sanders presidency would abolish the death penalty, which has “failed to reduce violent crime” and disproportionately affects low-income individuals and people of color. Sanders has long opposed capital punishment, according to Politico.

Sanders would take on the War on Drugs by decriminalizing marijuana and expunging past marijuana convictions. He would also decriminalize the possession of buprenorphine, which is used to treat opioid addiction, and legalize safe injection sites and needle exchanges around the US.

The idea of safe injection sites, where people can use drugs with sterile injection equipment under the supervision of trained staff, has gained traction in several US cities, including New York City, Philadelphia, and San Francisco. However, federal officials under the Trump administration do not support the concept, Vox reported.

Sanders has been a steady frontrunner in the race for the Democratic nomination. According to Real Clear Politics national poll averages, Sanders is polling in third place behind former Vice President Joe Biden and Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA). While he has fallen slightly behind Warren in the polls, Sanders continues to enjoy immense popularity and has higher support in New Hampshire, a key swing state.

About the Author

Nicole Rojas is a breaking news writer for The North Star. She has published in various venues, including Newsweek, GlobalPost, IHS Jane’s Defence Weekly, and the Long Island Post. Nicole graduated from Boston University in 2012 with a degree in print journalism. She is an avid world traveler who recently explored Asia and Australia.