Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders released plans, within days of each other, to reform the troubled criminal justice system and reduce mass incarceration. Both candidates highlight the massive number of people incarcerated or under the supervision of the criminal justice system as a key problem to be addressed. Both plans highlight many of the same issues, from the school-to-prison pipeline, the criminalization of mental illness, racial discrimination and disparities, the suicide crisis among police officers, and private prisons. Both would end cash bail, end the death penalty, and end or reduce mandatory minimum sentences. But they’re framed differently and each candidate has some distinct proposals, as civil rights attorney Tahir Duckett lays out in a helpful Twitter thread.
Sanders' plan, which seeks to “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,” starts with abolishing private prisons, something Warren had already addressed in a separate plan. By contrast, Warren opens by “reimagining how we talk and think about public safety,” with a focus keeping kids in school, keeping families off the streets in affordable housing, mental health and addiction services, and more.
“It is a false choice to suggest a tradeoff between safety and mass incarceration,” she writes. “By spending our budgets not on imprisonment but on community services that lift people up, we’ll decarcerate and make our communities safer.”
Both candidates emphasize how many roles police officers are expected to fill, often without training. As Sanders writes, police are “doubling as social workers, conflict negotiators, and medical responders.” Warren emphasizes mental health care that will keep people from the moments of crisis that often lead to interactions with police—something she notes Medicare for All would provide—and pledges to “increase funding for ‘co-responder’ initiatives that connect law enforcement to mental health care providers and experts.” Sanders takes this a step further, pledging to “create civilian corps of unarmed first responders, such as social workers, EMTs, and trained mental health professionals, who can handle order maintenance violations, mental health emergencies, and low-level conflicts outside the criminal justice system, freeing police officers to concentrate on the most serious crimes.”
Warren focuses her effort to reframe the public safety debate on violence prevention and diversion programs, citing how “Models in cities like Boston, Oakland and Chicago demonstrate that we can successfully reduce homicide and gun violence rates through creating cross-community partnerships and focused deterrence on the small percentage of people most likely to commit violence.” Similarly, she calls for diversion programs for people with substance abuse issues, programs that are “both more humane and a better investment than incarceration.” Sanders briefly mentions diversion programs, as well.
Both note that suicides among police officers exceed line-of-duty deaths, with Sanders posing his moves to reduce the stress on officers filling those “roles they are not trained or equipped for” as a partial answer to this, while Warren calls for mental and emotional support programs for police.
Both pledge to expand funding for public defenders, an important move to ensure fair trials, and to tackle prosecutorial abuses. Both would restrict qualified immunity, the get out of prosecution free card for police that creates situations like the one cited by Warren in which “a federal appeals court in Atlanta granted qualified immunity to a police officer who, while aiming at a family’s dog, shot a 10-year-old boy while the child was lying on the ground 18 inches away from the officer.”
Warren also pledges to “Use the pardon and clemency powers broadly to right systemic injustices”—again, clemency is something that Sanders includes in his plan, but without the level of detail that Warren brings. (Her plan clocks in at around 1,000 words more than his, in addition to which her plan to end private prisons is separate.) Additionally, Warren calls for improving data collection and reporting on a range of issues, so we know what is and isn’t happening in the criminal justice system; increasing oversight and empowering state attorneys general to conduct their own oversight.
Sanders’ and Warren’s plans are important policy entries in the presidential primary, representing a big step forward in the Democratic criminal justice and public safety debate. They’re in alignment on key issues from mandatory minimums to racial discrimination to the death penalty, and each brings some important differences to the table. This is the kind of policy debate we should be seeing all the time.