Monday Morning Thoughts: Sanders Lays Out Plan for Massive Overhaul of Criminal Justice System

It was one of the shortcomings of his 2016 campaign, but it is a shortcoming no more as Bernie Sanders on Sunday unveiled perhaps the most ambitious plan for overhauling the criminal justice system – vowing to slash the prison population in half and ridding the criminal justice system of “institutional racism and corporate profiteering.

“Due to the historical legacy of institutional racism in this country, mass incarceration disproportionately falls on the shoulders of black and brown people in America,” Mr. Sanders writes in his 6000 word plan.  “In fact, black Americans are incarcerated at five times the rate of white Americans, and even though people use drugs like marijuana at roughly the same rates across all races.

“When Bernie is president, we will finally make the deep and structural investments to rebuild the communities that mass incarceration continues to decimate,” he writes.  “We must move away from an overly-punitive approach to public safety and start focusing on how to safeguard our communities, prevent the conditions that lead to arrests, and rehabilitate people who have made mistakes.”

Bernie Sanders offers a lot in the way of specifics.

He calls for ending “profiteering in our criminal justice system” by ending the private prison industry.

“We must end the practice of corporations profiting off the suffering of incarcerated people and their families,” he writes.  “No one should be able to profit from filling our jails and prisons. As has been reported, private prisons also act on their profit incentive by advocating for longer sentences for people convicted of a crime.”

Another big part of his call: making prison phone calls and other communications free, ending the reliance on fines and fees for revenue, and removing the profit motive from the re-entry and diversion system.

Bernie Sanders calls for an end to cash bail.

“Right now, hundreds of thousands of people without a criminal conviction are in jail simply because they could not afford bail. Young people can spend hundreds of days in jail, only to be acquitted — yet the severe damage to their lives cannot be undone,” he writes.

He has introduced “the No Money Bail Act of 2018 to end cash bail and to end the criminalization of poverty in America.”

Bernie Sanders also tackles the issue of policing.

“The people who serve our country as police officers deserve our gratitude and respect. As a country, though, we are asking them to do far too much. As human beings, we all share common vulnerabilities, and we all share basic needs to live a stable and dignified life,” he writes.

At the same time, he says, “we must hold our police and sheriff’s departments to a higher standard. And we must end harmful policing practices like racial profiling, stop and frisk, oppressive ‘broken windows’ policing, and the militarization of police forces.”

He adds, “Widespread use of excessive force, including deadly shootings of unarmed civilians, undermine the integrity of and public trust in the police. Violence and brutality of any kind, particularly at the hands of the police meant to protect and serve our communities, must not be tolerated.”

In a thorough policy roll out, he calls for ensuring law enforcement accountability and robust oversight.

He hits on a wide range of policy areas: rescinding AG Sessions’ guidance on consent decreases and revitalizing their use, ensuring accountability and independent oversight.

He also calls for the end of federal programs to provide military equipment to local police forces.

“Mandate criminal liability for civil rights violations resulting from police misconduct,” he writes.  “Limit the use of ‘qualified immunity’ to address the lack of criminal liability for civil rights violations resulting from police misconduct.”

Bernie Sanders wants a US AG investigation whenever someone is killed in police custody and he calls for banning the use of facial recognition software.

Moving back into criminal justice reform, Bernie Sanders calls the criminal justice system “rigged.”  He notes, “The size of your bank account too often determines the quality of representation that a person will receive. If you cannot afford to pay fines and fees associated with criminal justice involvement, you can end up in a spiraling cycle of debt, with a suspended driver’s license, or even locked up in a modern debtor’s prison. We need a system that works equally well for the workers and the wealthy.”

Bernie Sanders goes back to the Gideon decision from 1963 to talk about the right to counsel.

He noted that “today 90 to 95 percent of criminal cases are decided by a plea deal, too often without the defendant playing an active role.”

He writes, “Across the United States, more than 80 percent of felony defendants cannot afford a privately retained lawyer and have to rely on state-administered public defenders or court-appointed counsel. Yet in states across the country, public defenders have far too many clients and too few resources to offer adequate representation.”

Mr. Sanders adds, “Despite the often heroic efforts of public defenders and other appointed counsel, the workload makes it impossible to provide the quality of representation that each defendant deserves.”

He added, “America must not be a country where only the rich enjoy the protections of the Fifth Amendment. We must not have a court system that offers “the best justice money can buy.” We must guarantee all Americans their Sixth Amendment rights.”

Bernie Sanders calls for tripling national spending on indigent defense, to $14 billion annually.  He also called for a review of salaries and workload and wants to set a minimum starting salary for all public defenders.

On the prosecutorial side, he wants to “rescind former Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ orders on prosecutorial discretion and low-level offenses.”  He also wants to limit “absolute immunity” for prosecutors, which is used to shield wrongdoers from liability.

On mass incarceration, he noted that “the United States imprisons people at a higher rate than any other nation, in no small part due to extremely harsh sentencing policies and the War on Drugs. But mass incarceration has not made us any safer or reduced drug use and addiction.”

He added, “Capital punishment has failed to reduce violent crime and is disproportionately apportioned to the poor and black and brown people. It has also cost innocent lives.”

Bernie Sanders is calling for the abolition of the death penalty, stopping excessive sentencing, ending mandatory sentencing minimums, the end of three strikes and much more.

—David M. Greenwald reporting

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About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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  1. Don Shor

    With respect to

    • ending capital punishment,
    • ending the cash bail system,
    • eliminating cocaine sentencing disparities,
    • reforming mandatory minimum sentencing, and
    • eliminating private prisons,

    all of the other major candidates for president hold the same positions except in one instance (Harris and Yang have called for reform of cash bail, not banning it).

    Here is Biden’s plan:

    Here is a quick overview of the candidates’ positions by Politico:




    1. David Greenwald

      Those are all positions I support, but none of them are really that forward.  However, there are things here that are.  I haven’t seen anyone else talking about more funding for indigent defense.  I haven’t seen talk about eliminating prosecutorial immunity.  One thing that was disappointing to me was a passing message to wrongful convictions, with no problem for addressing them within the system.

      1. Bill Marshall

        So, is that a preference, or an “all or nothing” stance?

        Reason I ask, is it is not about who gets the Democratic nomination… it’s about who the president is, come January 2021… fact. That individual will probably need a working majority in both houses of Congress… fact.

        And whoever the Democratic nominee is, they have to win over a huge bunch of ‘non-liberals’ (those afraid of changing the status quo)… many of whom think the criminal justice system is too ‘liberal’ today…

        Think there is a famous quote goes along the lines of “winning is not the most important thing… it is the only thing…”

        It’s early in the game… but be careful what you wish for… might come true at one level, totally fail at another… called ‘reality’…

        But, to the credit of what you appear to espouse, “a man’s reach should always exceed his grasp… or what is heaven for?”

        1. David Greenwald

          It’s neither a preference nor a stance, simply a remark about what was not in the proposal that otherwise was extremely thorough.  I have no idea who I will vote for.

        2. Bill Marshall

          Two other quotes that I believe apply…

          “A journey of 1000 miles, begins with one step”

          “Better to light a single candle, than to curse the darkness”

          And, a third…

          “Those who are not against us, are for us”…

          Just thoughts…


        3. Bill Marshall

          but none of them are really that forward.

          I haven’t seen anyone else talking about more funding for indigent defense.

          I haven’t seen talk about eliminating prosecutorial immunity.
          One thing that was disappointing to me was a passing message to wrongful convictions, with no problem for addressing them within the system.

          Nah… no negativity there… my mistake.

          It’s neither a preference nor a stance, simply a remark.


        4. Bill Marshall

          David… I evaluate the proposals on a practical paradigm… all proposals are superior to status quo… but unless a platform is accepted by the majority, it is not going to be a happening thing… reality… you can do all the ‘ivory tower’ philosophizing, ‘moralizing’ you wish… but the rubber hits the road on election day…

          You are stressing the 2nd-3rd deviation approach… most ‘radical’… that ain’t going to prevail in the General Election… reality.

          You are free to deny or accept reality.

        1. Bill Marshall

          Thx for the info… will view it… guess DG used a big roller brush in painting his points…

          Zealots do that… and that’s OK… free speech et al.

  2. Don Shor

    There is broad consensus, per public opinion polls, for criminal justice reform involving various of the measures noted. There is overwhelming consensus among Democrats. So it is very likely that a package of reform bills, or a series of measures, would pass and get signed by the president, except that the current leadership of the Senate simply won’t allow it to happen.

    So if the Democrats keep control of the House, flip the Senate, and win the White House, it is likely that some kind of reform bill(s) will pass. IMO, the likelihood of those three things happening is inversely related to how liberal the Democratic party nominee is.

    I’d guess eliminating immunity for prosecutors would be a tough sell. The other things are much likelier. The differences between the candidates aren’t significant, really, on those issues, and given how legislation is crafted via negotiation and compromise I’d say the exact positions of the candidates on the details aren’t that important.

      1. Bill Marshall

        Again, Craig, if he just pushes Democrats to the left, the more likely there will be a Republican sworn into office come January 2021.  Are you familiar with the term ‘pyrrhic victory’?…

        Be careful what you wish for… there can be ‘unintended consequences’… if you go “all in” on a principle, you may well get nada… gotta’ take big steps before you can run… said by someone who voted for McGovern in ’72; John Anderson in ’76…etc.

        1. Bill Marshall

          Rest assured, Craig, the reality is that the Sanders’ view re:  criminal justice reform is a major/significant plank in the 2020 Demo ‘platform’, a Republican will take the presidential oath of office Jan 2021.  I don’t want to see that, but it will happen…

          The lesser proposals, heading to the same goals, just might mean a Democrat will take the oath then… which I fervently hope for…(depending on the Demo candidate… otherwise, might root for a 3rd party candidate)

          Just saying…

        2. Bill Marshall

          Fine, David… like if Clinton had run on that platform she’d have beaten Trump in the Electoral vote…

          ELO had a great song “Hold on Tight to your Dream”… feel perfectly OK on “holding on tight to your delusion”…

          Democrats will have to gamble on the Sanders’ approach… I see it, as stated, as a surefire loser… the Demos will hold the moral high ground, but not the ‘bully pulpit’… it is what it is, in the here and now…

          If you want to see Trump, or someone with his views taking the oath in 2021, by all means, ‘stick to your guns’…

    1. Bill Marshall

      So if the Democrats keep control of the House, flip the Senate, and win the White House, it is likely that some kind of reform bill(s) will pass. IMO, the likelihood of those three things happening is inversely related to how liberal the Democratic party nominee is.

      Don, fully agree on both counts… key words are “if”, and “some”… moderates could ‘win the day’ (logic-based)… Trump won on ‘polarization’… he can be defeated by finding moderate ‘common ground’… which is the outcome I’d seek… we can always improve, but this sure looks like an “all or nothing” stance (Sanders)… Sanders’ position, if adopted as a plank, might even empower those who think the justice system is too damn lenient…

  3. Alan Miller

    The reason one has to be concerned with who one votes for, if they actually think getting one party in over the other is a good thing, is the fallacy of fairness of majority vote with one voter one vote.  The only real system is choice voting.  Without it, we shall forever fail.


  4. John Hobbs

    “The only real system is choice voting. ”

    Only for the noncommittal and OCD.

    RCV fatally complicates the voting process especially in elections for multiple positions under one title.(“Vote for three candidates”)

    None of the alleged benefits(Allowing third party or non-aligned candidates a greater chance, reduces negative campaigning and stems the influence of money..) seem to occur in reality.

    Grow a spine and play the game.

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