COLUMBIA, S.C. | Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders is proposing a criminal justice overhaul that aims to cut the nation’s prison population in half, end mandatory minimum sentencing, ban private prisons and legalize marijuana. He says the current system does not fairly treat people of color, addicts or the mentally ill.
“We have a system that imprisons and destroys the lives of millions of people,” Sanders told The Associated Press before the planned released of his proposal Sunday. “It’s racist in disproportionately affecting the African American and Latino communities, and it’s a system that needs fundamental change.”
Sanders was promoting the plan during a weekend of campaigning in South Carolina, where the majority of the Democratic electorate is African American. The Vermont senator, who won the support of some younger black Democrats during the 2016 primary, has stepped up his references to racial disparities, particularly during stops in the South and urban areas.
Before about 300 at a town hall in Columbia on Sunday afternoon, Sanders conducted a conversation on the plan with several state lawmakers who have endorsed him. Also part of the discussion was Donald Gilliard, Sanders’ South Carolina deputy political director, who was at one time sentenced to life in federal prison for a nonviolent drug crime.
“Sometimes you don’t even believe what you’re hearing here,” Sanders said Sunday, of the problems he sees in the criminal justice system.
As president, Sanders said he would abolish mandatory minimum sentencing and reinstate a federal parole system, end the “three strikes law” and expand the use of alternative sentencing, including community supervision and halfway houses. The goal is to reduce the prison population by one-half.
“A very significant number of people who are behind bars today are dealing with one form or another of illness,” Sanders said. “These should be treated as health issues, not from a criminal perspective.”
According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness , 2 million people with mental illness are booked into jails annually.
Taking aim at what his proposal calls “for-profit prison profiteering,” Sanders would ban private prisons, make prison phone calls and other inmate communications free, and audit prison commissaries for price gouging and fees.
The plan would legalize marijuana and expunge previous marijuana convictions, and end a cash bail system that Sanders says keeps hundreds of thousands who have not been convicted of a crime languishing in jail because they cannot afford bail.
“Can you believe that, in the year 2019, 400,000 people are in jail awaiting a trial because they are poor?” Sanders said. “That is a moral outrage, it is a legal outrage.”
According to the Prison Policy Initiative , more than 460,000 people are being held in local jails around the country while they await trial, with a median bail amount of $10,000 for felony offenses.
Sanders wants to improve relations between law enforcement agencies and the communities they serve. To do that, he proposes to end federal programs that provide military equipment to local police forces, establish federal standards for the use of body cameras, provide bias training and require that the Justice Department review all officer-involved shootings.
“You have a lot of resentment in minority communities all over this country, who see police forces not as an asset but as an invading force,” Sanders said.
On capital punishment, Sanders’ plan formalizes his call to end the federal death penalty and urges states to eliminate the punishment as well.
“When we talk about violence in society and trying to lower the levels of violence, it is not appropriate that the state itself is part of capital punishment,” Sanders said.
Sanders said that over the long term, his plan will save the public money because of reductions to overall incarceration costs.
“It will cost money but it will pay for itself many, many times over,” Sanders said. “Locking people up is very, very expensive.”
Kinnard can be reached at http://twitter.com/MegKinnardAP