Criminal Justice Reform Is Proving a Tricky Subject for Many of These 2020 Democrats

By Josiah Bates, Times

From health care to climate change, the crowded field of Democratic presidential contenders has a number of complex subjects to tackle in stump speeches, interviews and debates.

But few are proving as thorny as criminal justice reform, often for very personal reasons.

For candidates like former Vice President Joe Biden and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, it’s their past record of voting for tough-on-crime legislation. For others, like South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, it’s their current oversight of troubled police departments. And for former prosecutors, like California Sen. Kamala Harris and Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, it’s their own records of putting people behind bars.

The peril of the subject was demonstrated vividly just before the recent primary debates, when a white police officer in the South Bend shot and killed a black man, 54-year-old Eric Logan. Asked at the debates why was he wasn’t able to hire more black officers, Buttigieg said: “Because I couldn’t get it done.”

Here’s a look at what the 2020 Democratic candidates propose to do on criminal justice reform as well as their own records.

Former Vice President Joe Biden

Few candidates face as serious an obstacle as Biden, who literally helped write the law. As a senator from Delaware in the 1990s, he long took-credit for his role in crafting the 1994 crime bill signed by President Bill Clinton.

At the time, it was the largest crime-control bill in U.S. history and provided the U.S. with thousands of new police officers, billions of dollars in funding for prisons and millions of dollars in funding prevention programs.

But it also included a mandatory life sentence policy for repeat offenders, which critics blame in part for the mass incarceration of black men in the ’90s.

On criminal justice issues, Biden is now more in line with the goals of reformers. As vice president, he spoke about the killings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile and said that the Obama Administration can “deal with the remaining issues that affect the perception and reality of how police act in communities and how the communities act to the police.”

Biden also expressed regret in January over his stance of being tough on crime in the 1990s. “The bottom line is we have a lot to root out, but most of all the systemic racism that most of us whites don’t like to acknowledge even exists,” Biden said at a breakfast hosted by Rev. Al Sharpton and the National Action Network. “We don’t even consciously acknowledge it. But it’s been built into every aspect of our system.”

In terms of his 2020 run, Biden has a plan for criminal justice reform that includes eliminating racial disparities that exists and making sure that people who have served their time are able to contribute to society. He hasn’t spelled out a plan for police reform.

California Sen. Kamala Harris

For Harris, her background as a prosecutor, district attorney and attorney general of California is both a strength and a weakness.

As shown by her cross examinations of everyone from Senate witnesses to Biden on the debate stage, her public persona leans on the classic image of a tough but fair prosecutor. Her slogan, “For the People,” is even a phrase from courtrooms.

But like Biden, Harris also has faced questions about her tough-on-crime record. She has expressed regret over her role as attorney general in California in the passing of a law that punished the parents of children who were consistently missing school.

Harris has also had a tricky past when it comes to the death penalty. When she announced her candidacy, Harris went on MSNBC and said that she’s always been against the death penalty.

“We are talking about a system that creates a final punishment without any requirement that there be DNA to prove it,” Harris said. “It is a system where it has been fundamentally proven to be applied to African American and Latino men and poor men disproportionately for the same kind of crime.”

While working as a district attorney in San Francisco, Harris did not seek the death penalty in the shooting death of Isaac Espinoza, a young cop who was killed by David Hill. Harris faced some criticism from law enforcement groups for her decision.

In 2010, when she was running for attorney general in California, Harris had a hard time getting support from law enforcement groups. She said that while she personally did not agree with the death penalty, she would support it as attorney general. She would go on to narrowly win the election.

Harris initiated some significant police reforms during her time as attorney general of California. The state’s Department of Justice became the first agency to have a statewide body camera program under her watch. She also started the Open Justice Program, which tracks much of the police data in the state, including people who die in police custody.

Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders

Like Biden, Sen. Bernie Sanders was a supporter of the ’94 crime bill. However, he has since moved away from that position and has spoken out against the use of private prisons, the war on drugs, police misconduct and the death penalty.

In 2015, in the midst of the a several incidents of police shootings of unarmed black men, Sanders told MSNBC that the policing of minority communities is a “huge issue.”

“We are beginning to pay attention to what happened in South Carolina, what happened in Baltimore, what happened in New York,” Sanders said. “Clearly we do need police reform, we need better training. When police officers break the law they have got to be held accountable. It is no longer acceptable to turn away from that reality.”

Since starting his campaign for 2020, Sanders laid out his “Racial Justice” plan that, among other things, highlights the racial disparities that exists in arrest patterns of the African American community.

Sanders also hopes to end the “war on drugs”, eliminate private prisons and detention centers, abolish the death penalty and “bring about a major police department reform” in his Racial Justice plan.

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