Bernie Sanders has had more than his share of bad ideas over the years (see: socialism). But in his recently released proposal, Justice and Safety for All, the junior senator from Vermont offers an impressive call for the overhaul of our criminal justice system.
The Rift Between the People and the Police
Sanders identifies flaws in what the law defines as “crime,” how the presumption of innocence is often replaced by a presumption of guilt, how obtaining a fair hearing has become less a right than a privilege, and ways in which overstretched police have come to be held to a lower standard of behavior than the citizenry. In sum, Sanders has created a list of goals that, if achieved, would heal the rift that exists between the police and the people. It would also go a long way toward satisfying the needs of justice, something that has long been absent in our criminal law.
Sanders’s plan calls for banning cash bail so that poor defendants, like their rich counterparts, can avoid jail while waiting for their cases to be heard. He wants to end civil asset forfeiture, a practice that gives police departments both the ability and the incentive to seize innocent people’s money, cars, and homes.
Much of the mutual distrust has arisen because of a growing body of law that criminalizes all manner of victimless behavior. Here, police have become a greater threat than criminals as the value of assets Americans lose to police through civil asset forfeiture exceeds the value of assets they lose to criminals through theft.
Sanders wants to legalize marijuana, and create [supervised] injection sites where drug users can take illegal drugs under medical supervision. This follows Portugal’s radically successful decriminalization of all drugs, a plan a number of other countries are also trying in the wake of the monumental failure of the War on Drugs.
Much of the mutual distrust that exists between police and the citizens they are sworn to protect has arisen because of a growing body of law that criminalizes all manner of victimless behavior. As politicians have created an ever-expanding list of victimless “crimes,” they have shifted the role of the police from protecting and serving to monitoring and enforcing. Marijuana legalization and [supervised] injection sites would go a long way toward reversing this shift.
Sanders also wants to limit qualified immunity and hold police criminally liable for civil rights violations. Holding police to the same standards of behavior to which they hold citizens might well go the rest of the way.
Lest there be any doubt that Sanders is on the right path with this, consider the numbers. As of 2016, more than 6.6 million Americans were either in prison, in jail, or on parole or probation. That’s 1 in 38 adults. The incarceration rate in the U.S. is higher than anywhere else on the planet, almost five times the rate in the UK, more than five times the rate in China, six times the rate in France, and 10 times the rates in Norway, Sweden, and Finland. If China incarcerated its citizens at the same rate that the U.S. does, the number of Chinese prisoners would roughly equal the number of American adults.
Sanders doesn’t need a new job in order to reform our criminal justice system. He just needs to do his current job well.
Sanders’s plan would have the effect of bringing our incarceration rates back down from the stratosphere by taking pressure off of police to act as weaponized nannies, and by holding law enforcement’s bad apples accountable.
Of course, Sanders’s goal here is to revive his presidential campaign, and that’s a problem. As a sitting United States senator, Sanders should be keenly aware that presidents do not make laws; legislators do. Along with his legislative colleagues, Sanders already has the power to bring about the changes he seeks. As president, he would not. The U.S. Constitution, a document Sanders would do well to read, is clear on the matter. Also clear is that most incarceration isn’t even a matter of federal law, but of state law.
Nonetheless, the federal government should do what it can. And Bernie Sanders is in a perfect position in the Senate to get this ball rolling. If he really believes what he preaches in his document, he should turn Justice and Safety for All into a piece of legislation. Sanders doesn’t need a new job in order to reform our criminal justice system. He just needs to do his current job well.