Sanders Calls Criminal Justice Reform the 'Civil Rights Issue of the Century'

GOP presidential candidate Ben Carson and Democratic presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders came to Allen University Saturday with very different views of the criminal justice system and what should be done to address its failings.
Bernie Sanders
November 21, 2015
U.S. Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders spoke about criminal justice reform at a forum sponsored by BET. Here, Sanders takes a selfie with supporters after a campaign rally at the South Carolina Democratic Party headquarters in Columbia, SC
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COLUMBIA, S.C. -- U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders on Saturday called criminal justice reform the "civil rights issue of the 21st century" and detailed a series of reforms needed in a nation where more inmates are behind bars than any other country and a disproportionate number of prisoners are minorities.

"For too long in this country politicians have used getting tough on crime as a wedge issue to win elections. It is clearly about time to start talking -- as we have in this election -- about the really disastrous effects of too many politicians trying to win too many elections by locking too many people up," Sanders told a forum on criminal justice reform at Allen University.

"And we should lay it all right out on the table." Sanders added. "People in American jails are disproportionately people of color. That's the reality in America today. That's a reality that has to change."

Among what he called "shocking statistics," Sanders said one in four black males born today can expect to spend time in prison during their lifetime; that blacks are imprisoned at six times the rate of whites and that minorities are sentenced to death at significantly higher rates than whites. He also noted that the Department of Justice found that blacks were three times more likely to be searched during a traffic stop, compared to white motorists.

Sanders also spoke about what he called an "endless stream of tragedies" that he said "screams out for justice" involving blacks killed by police during arrests or while in custody.

"The Black Lives Matter movement which has arisen in response to these deaths has done a needed and commendable job in raising public awareness of this issue. The proliferation of cell phone video has brought the reality of these deaths into the living room and onto the computer screens of people across this country. I know you have heard these names before but they bear repeating so we do not lose sight of the real human price being paid: Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Walter Scott, Freddie Gray, Sandra Bland, Tamir Rice, Samuel Dubose, Rekia Boyd and too many more. But people must do more than just echo the phrase Black Lives Matter. We must put actions behind those words. Actions that will bring about the fundamental reform that is needed in the face of this crisis," Sanders said.

Declaring that "the killings of African-Americans has got to stop," Sanders put police reform at the top of a list of proposals to remake the criminal justice system in the United States. "Too many African-Americans and other minorities find themselves subjected to a system that treats citizens who have not committed crimes like criminals," Sanders said.

Sanders' proposals include:

  • Eliminating for-profit prisons within two years.
  • Ending mandatory minimum sentencing and giving judges the discretion to better tailor sentences to the specific facts of a given case.
  • Removing marijuana from the federal list of controlled substances and letting states decide whether possession should be a crime.
  • Establishing a new federal police training program that trains police to de-escalate confrontations and to humanely interact with people with mental illnesses.
  • Making police forces reflect the diversity of our communities.
  • Requiring greater civilian oversight of police departments and ongoing and meaningful community engagement.
  • Making law enforcement officers wear body cameras to help hold them accountable while protecting the privacy of innocent people.
  • Providing federal funding to help state and local governments adopt new policing standards. State and local governments who participate in police reform should be rewarded by the federal government. Those who do not should have federal justice funding withheld.

Senator Bernie Sanders
Presidential Justice Forum
Allen University
Columbia, South Carolina

Thank you for holding this critically important forum on the issue of criminal justice reform. For too long in this country politicians have used getting tough on crime as a wedge issue to win elections. It is clearly about time to start talking -- as we have in this election -- about the really disastrous effects of too many politicians trying to win too many elections by locking too many people up.

All of this has led to the tragic reality that we -- the United States of America -- have more people in jail than any other country on earth. We have more people in jail than China which is an authoritarian state with a population many times our own. And we should lay it all right out on the table. People in American jails are disproportionately people of color. That's the reality in America today. That's a reality that has to change.

I'm going to start with an issue that is on everyone's mind, the continuing struggle for racial justice in America. Let's start with horrible facts:

  • If current trends continue, one in four black males born today can expect to spend time in prison during their lifetime. This is an unspeakable tragedy.
  • Blacks are imprisoned at six times the rate of whites.
  • People of color are incarcerated, policed and sentenced to death at significantly higher rates than their white counterparts.
  • One in every 15 African-American men is incarcerated, compared to one in every 106 white men.
  • The Department of Justice found that blacks were three times more likely to be searched during a traffic stop, compared to white motorists.
  • African-Americans are twice as likely to be arrested and almost four times as likely to experience the use of force during encounters with the police.
  • African-Americans make up two-fifths of confined youth today.
  • African-American women are three times more likely than white women to be incarcerated.
  • Once convicted, black offenders receive longer sentences (10 percent longer) than white offenders for the same crimes.
  • Thirteen percent of African-American men have lost the right to vote due to felony convictions.

These are shocking statistics to say the least. But before we even address those we have to deal with the most urgent and obvious issue that needs to be addressed head on. And that is the killing of African-Americans by police or deaths while in custody. The seemingly endless stream of tragedies we hear about screams out for justice. The Black Lives Matter movement which has arisen in response to these deaths has done a needed and commendable job in raising the public awareness of this issue. The proliferation of cell phone video has brought the reality of these deaths into the living room and onto the computer screen of people across this country. I know you have heard these names before but they bear repeating so we do not lose sight of the real human price being paid: Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Walter Scott, Freddie Gray, Sandra Bland, Tamir Rice, Samuel Dubose, Rekia Boyd and too many more.

But people must do more than just echo the phrase Black Lives Matter. We must put actions behind those words. Actions that will bring about the fundamental reform that is needed in the face of this crisis. Criminal justice reform must be the civil rights issue of the 21st century and the most first piece has to be police reform. The killings of African-Americans has got to stop.

Across the nation, too many African-Americans and other minorities find themselves subjected to a system that treats citizens who have not committed crimes like criminals. A growing number of communities do not trust the police and police have become disconnected from the communities they are sworn to protect.

At the federal level, we need to establish a new model police training program that reorients the way we do law enforcement in this country.

With input from a broad segment of the community including activists and leaders from organizations like Black Lives Matter we will reinvent how we police America.

A critically important component of this reform is new rules on the allowable use of force. Police officers need to be trained to de-escalate confrontations and to humanely interact with people who have mental illnesses. Someone who calls the police to help with a mentally ill family member should not expect that that person will be dealt with lethal force.

We need police forces that reflect the diversity of our communities.

And that must extend into the leadership of police departments and into the training departments.

Clearly we need greater civilian oversight of police departments and ongoing and meaningful community engagement.

We need to federally fund and require body cameras for law enforcement officers to make it easier to hold them accountable. But we also establish standards and processes to protect the privacy innocent people.

Our Justice Department must aggressively investigate and prosecute police officers who break the law and hold them accountable for their actions. We may need to examine when current federal civil rights status provide the Justice Department to protect the people of this country.

We need to require police departments and states to provide public reports on all police shootings and deaths that take place while in police custody.

And the federal government should provide funding to help state and local governments adopt these new policing standards. State and local governments who participate in police reform should be rewarded by the federal governments. Those who do not should have federal justice funding withheld.

Further, we must demilitarize our police forces so they don't look and act like invading armies. All too often we see police forces going into neighborhoods looking like they are invading some far away country.

We also have to develop standards and crack down on communities that are using their police forces essentially as revenue generators.

Communities that receive an inordinate amount of their local funding through fines and citations need to be stopped.

Finally, we have to deal with the level of policing in African-American communities across this country. There is a strong sense among many activists and others I have spoken to that there is overpolicing in some African-American communities.

Now I know that some will say that that's because there is more crime in those poor Black urban communities. But we jump to that conclusion, we should examine recent 2014 Bureau of Justice Statistics report examining the relationship between household poverty and non-lethal violent victimization which includes rape or sexual assault, robbery, aggravated assault, and simple assault. And this is what it found for the period studied from 2008 to 2012.

Poor persons living in urban areas had violent victimization rates similar to poor persons living in rural areas.

Poor urban blacks had rates of violence similar to poor urban whites.

Now I represent a rural state and have for decades. And I have to tell you that I do not see the level or intensity of policing that we seem to see in so many cities.

Of course, People committing violent crimes need to be caught, tried by a jury of their peers, and if they are convicted they need to go to jail. The vast majority of police officers -- black and white -- are doing the difficult and dangerous work of protecting communities. As a former mayor, I know what a difficult job police officers have. We need police officers to keep our streets safe.

However, we cannot ignore the fact that the majority of people living in our cities are trying to work hard, play by the rules and raise their children. There are neighborhoods where mothers are afraid to let their children outside for fear of gang violence and drugs and we owe it to them to get dangerous people off our streets. But mothers should not be afraid of their children being targeted by the police because of the color of their skin, and they should not be worried that a routine interaction with law enforcement ends in inappropriate force or death.

But of course criminal justice reform goes beyond merely reforming police departments. We have to rethink our entire approach. We cannot jail our way out of health problems like drug addiction or social and economic problems like poverty.

We must end the over incarceration of non-violent young Americans who do not pose a serious threat to our society. African-Americans comprise 14 percent of regular drug users but are 37 percent of those arrested for drug offenses. From 1980 to 2007, about 1 in 3 adults arrested for drugs was African-American.

How many encounters between young people and the police begin with officers detecting the odor of marijuana? It is an obscenity that we stigmatize so many young Americans with a criminal record for smoking marijuana, but not one major Wall Street executive has been prosecuted for causing the near collapse of our entire economy. This must change. It is time to take marijuana off the federal list of controlled substances and let state decide whether they want to go forward with legalization, regulation and taxation without interference from the federal government.

We need to end prisons for profit, which result in an over-incentive to arrest, jail and detain, in order to keep prison beds full. I have introduced legislation to do just that.

We need to invest in drug courts and interventions for people with substance abuse problems, so that they do not end up in prison, they end up in treatment.

We need to address our mental health crisis in the country.

We need to end mandatory minimum sentencing and give judges the discretion to better tailor sentences to the specific facts of a given case.

The federal system of parole needs to be reinstated. For people who are serving long sentences, there needs to be an incentive for people to make different choices, and earn their way to a shorter sentence and a path to a productive life.

For people who have committed crimes that have landed them in jail, there needs to be a path back from prison, including a restoration of full voting rights. There needs to be job training and education. It is far cheaper to send a kid to the best Ivy League school in this country than it is to lock them up for a year. I cannot understand why we do not make the important investments in our incarcerated people so that they do not end up back in jail.

And if we are truly going to move away from over incarceration there are a number of systemic issues that we must address but let me address two here.

The first is the disparity in education for children in poor communities, and poor communities of color in particular. Black children, who make up just 18 percent of preschoolers, to account for 48 percent of all out-of-school suspensions before kindergarten. We are failing our black children before Kindergarten! Black students were expelled at three times the rate of white students. Black girls were suspended at higher rates than all other girls and most boys. According to the Department of Education, African-American students are more likely to suffer harsh punishments -- suspensions and arrests -- at school.

We must address the lingering unjust stereotypes that lead us to label black youths as "thugs" and "super-predators." We must get into our schools and keep kids in school. We must ensure that children graduate from high school and don't drop out.

We need to take a hard look at education system. Black students attended schools with higher concentrations of first-year teachers, compared with white students.

Black students were more than three times as likely to attend schools where fewer than 60 percent of teachers meet all state certification and licensure requirements.

We need to give our children, regardless of their income a fair shot at attending college, that's why I support making college education free for all public universities.

We have to stop the criminalization of classroom misbehavior. Who was not horrified by the video of the resource officer throwing a young girl across the room in this very state. There is a pipeline from school to jail that we have to turn into a pipeline from school to a promising future.

The second issue is the issue of poverty. I spoke a few minutes ago about the fact that the violent crime victimization rate for poor urban blacks and poor rural whites was about the same.

But the truth is that that rate for both groups is more than double what it is for people living in households above the poverty line. The truth is that there is just more crime in poor communities -- whether they are black or white. We can no longer abandon poor communities in this country.

We live at a time when most Americans don't have $10,000 in savings, and millions of working adults have no idea how they will ever retire in dignity. God forbid, they are confronted with an unforeseen car accident, a medical emergency, or the loss of a job. It would literally send their lives into an economic tailspin. And the problems are even more serious when we consider race.

Most black and Latino households have less than $350 in savings.

The black unemployment rate has remained roughly twice as high as the white rate over the last 40 years, regardless of education. According to a recent analysis by Pew Research Center, the average African-American household has a total net worth -- the value of all of assets minus your debts -- of just $11,000. Meanwhile, the average white family has a net worth of $141,900.

This is unacceptable. We need to take bold steps to stop the increased impoverishment of already depressed communities. For instance, we need to raise the minimum wage. Raising it over a period of a few years to a living wage of $15 an hour would give about 50 percent of African-American workers a raise. We can let every child in school know that if he or she does their school work they can get a college education. We have to make sure poor communities have access to credit on fair terms, so they can buy homes, start business, and avoid predatory lenders.

We need to invest in jobs and job training, rather than to be building more and more jails and to be locking up more and more people. That is why I have submitted legislation to spend $5.5 billion dollars to fund job-training programs for inner city youth. Instead of building more and more prisons, we need to be building more and more meaningful lives where young people can have a future, not be stuck in a dead end with no hope or opportunity.

We can deliver that change, but we can't do it by tinkering with the system at the margins. We need to think bigger and bolder if we are going to deliver the kind of social and economic transformation that we are all demanding.

 

November 22, 2015