Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton discussed criminal justice reform during the Democratic debate in Milwaukee, Wisconsin last week. While Mrs. Clinton touted Obama’s “progress” in that realm, Bernie Sanders promised to release half a million prisoners during his first term as president.
When asked how she would address the disproportionately high African American prison population, Clinton affirmed that we must end “the era of mass incarceration.” She noted that the black male population in Wisconsin’s jails is twice the national average (13%). Not surprisingly, she also praised the ideas laid out by Obama’s policing commission and said that she aims to focus on state-level sentencing. We must “restore policing that will actually protect the communities that police officers are sworn to protect.”
Systemic racism also exists in employment and education, she continued. In order to improve the criminal justice system, we also need to discuss housing, education, and jobs.
Senator Sanders spoke next, saying that he agreed with everything Mrs. Clinton said. “This mandatory sentencing, very bad idea, takes away discretion from judges,” he said. The Vermont Senator once again harped on the scary appearance of local police, saying, “We’ve got to demilitarize local police departments so they do no look like occupying armies.”
Sanders wants cops to look just like the people in the communities they serve “in their diversity,” but my question here is how will we distinguish police from the average citizen? Anyway, Sanders went on to say that America is “failing abysmally” in the way we release prisoners – without “the education, the job training, without the resources they need to get their lives together.” He says it’s not a surprise that so many of them wind up back in jail.
The Vermont Senator then renewed his vow to cut down on the amount of Americans in jail should he be elected president: “We will not have more people in jail than any other country, we will invest in education and jobs for our kids, not more incarceration and more jails.” With 2.2 million people in jail, the United States is currently the world’s biggest jailer followed by China with 1.7 million.
Considering the fact that the vast majority of the nation’s prisoners live in local and state jails, it is unclear how Sanders plans to accomplish his goal. There are currently fewer than 200,000 prisoners in the system over which the federal government presides. And while the socialist candidate plans to stop punishing marijuana users and to free non-violent drug users from jail, this effort would result in far less than half a million prisoners freed.