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Bernie’s Plan Rings in a New Era of Criminal Justice Politics

With his Justice and Safety for All plan, Bernie Sanders is applying his democratic socialist vision to one of the urgent questions of our time: ending the carceral state. He’s opted to follow the lead of criminal justice reformers — and their demands are starting to look like his, too.

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders takes the stage during a forum on gun safety at the Iowa Events Center on August 10, 2019 in Des Moines, Iowa. (Stephen Maturen / Getty Images)

Bernie Sanders’s Justice and Safety for All plan is a big deal. With no fewer than 127 bullet points, it’s the most comprehensive criminal justice plan released by any Democratic presidential candidate. As a random example, Sanders’s plan doesn’t just affirm the right to counsel for people without the means to pay — it proposes seven reforms to guarantee that right in practice. That granularity is characteristic of the whole document.

The plan’s heft and substance should put to rest the rumor that Sanders talks pretty but is thin on details. Moreover, the plan has implications that extend far beyond his own campaign.

For years, civil rights and criminal justice reform activists and organizations have been looking beyond procedural reforms. Increasingly, they’ve been training their sights on substantive change outside the criminal justice sphere itself, seeking community investment solutions that can improve living standards, improve safety, and over time displace police and prisons. Meanwhile, Sanders has been searching for a way to apply his democratic socialist ideas to criminal justice issues. The Justice and Safety for All plan represents the confluence of these currents: a democratic socialist looking to apply his political vision to criminal justice meets a criminal justice reform movement hungry for radical social interventions.

“My feeling had always been that the idea of producing public safety through community investment instead of policing was completely compatible with a democratic socialist agenda,” says Alex Vitale, a professor of sociology at Brooklyn College and the author of The End of Policing. Vitale, who is also a member of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), was tapped to assist the Sanders campaign in drafting its criminal justice plan.

“I said to the Sanders folks, look, this is happening.” The core civil rights and criminal justice organizations with a national reach “are all moving in a direction that’s consistent with your political vision. There’s been a massive shift within the civil rights community and among activists away from procedural reforms and toward community reinvestment.”

At the time of the early Black Lives Matter protests in 2014, the most popular demands emanating from the movement were still procedural reforms to policing. We heard a lot about body cameras, a database of police shootings, and prosecution of police officers who kill unarmed civilians. But a few years into Black Lives Matter, many activists and organizations started to feel that these measures alone were insufficient. Reforming the police was crucial, but it wouldn’t be enough. And while there were necessary changes to make to prisons and the legal system, reforms there would not suffice either. Thus we saw a new political orientation take shape, with activists shifting their focus from reforming police and prisons to reforming society, so that the role of police and prisons could be minimized.

Groups like the Movement for Black Lives and the Black Youth Project 100 “have been the cutting edge” of this transformation, says Vitale. In 2014, 150 groups came together in the Movement for Black Lives coalition. When it released a platform in 2016, the evolution was apparent. The coalition’s demands went far beyond the call for body cameras and databases. Demands included universal health care, quality tuition-free public education and childcare, full employment, and housing for all. In many ways, the demands of the movement started to resemble those of Bernie Sanders.

That evolution made Sanders’s overall political approach a natural fit, but it took a while for the pieces to come together. One reason for the delay was that Sanders himself was struggling to articulate what his political vision had to offer in the way of criminal justice solutions. For example, Sanders began to talk more about private prisons. It seemed obvious: Sanders is the nation’s leading critic of the distortions of the profit motive within the public sector. The problem is that private prisons are just the tip of the iceberg. The same went for cash bail, an issue Sanders himself helped elevate to prominence. It’s true that cash bail in effect criminalizes poverty and must end, but it’s just one aspect of a deeply broken system.

Thus, for a few years, Sanders tried in earnest but struggled to connect the dots between his democratic socialist political vision and the juggernaut of mass incarceration and overpolicing. That started to change this year, when his second presidential campaign sought to make connections (though still nascent) with criminal justice and civil rights activists and organizations in the post–Black Lives Matter landscape.

Through that effort, it appears that the Sanders campaign has finally found the sweet spot. These groups and individuals are bringing to the table an analysis of policing and prisons as an unsuitable substitute for public investment in dispossessed communities, particularly communities of color. To scale down the role of police and prisons in society, we must build up social programs and improve living standards for the poor and marginalized. And when it comes to building up an alternative to the carceral apparatus, that’s Bernie’s strong suit.

The new synthesis can be found throughout the Justice and Safety for All plan. The plan includes plenty of concrete reforms to the legal system, prisons, and policing. But it also repeatedly emphasizes the need to divert funds and resources into building healthier communities, consistent with the Movement for Black Lives’ invest-divest strategy. “We need to shift our emphasis toward solving problems in ways that don’t rely on policing and incarceration as a first option by supporting alternative strategies to make individuals and communities safer and healthier,” says the plan.

“When Bernie is president, we will finally make the deep and structural investments to rebuild the communities that mass incarceration continues to decimate,” it reads. “We must 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.”

In practice, what that means is that a Sanders administration won’t just ban the prosecution of youth in adult courts and end solitary confinement for juveniles, though these are necessary reforms in their own right. It will also “invest in school nurses, counselors, teachers, teaching assistants, and small class sizes to address disciplinary issues” — provisions that are already laid out in Sanders’s Thurgood Marshall Plan for Education. Similarly, a Sanders administration will not only end the war on drugs, it will also legalize safe injection sites and invest public money in addiction treatment and overdose prevention services. There is already a role for substance abuse treatment carved out in Sanders’s Medicare for All plan. And a Sanders administration will not only reduce the number of inmates by arresting fewer people and releasing more from jail; it will also guarantee safe and affordable housing and job training on the outside, before and after incarceration. These demands are already present in Sanders’s 21st Century Bill of Economic Rights.

None of this is a stretch for Sanders. His presidential campaign has always been predicated on the idea that we must tax the rich and corporations, and redistribute society’s wealth to the working class and the poor in the form of robust universal social programs, which enshrine as rights things like health care, education, housing, a good job, a secure retirement, and a clean environment. What was missing was a bridge connecting the rest of his platform to criminal justice reform.

With the release of the Justice for All plan, it appears the connection has been made. The plan simultaneously reflects Sanders’s evolution on criminal justice specifics and the contemporary criminal justice reform movement’s evolution on systemic social issues. The result, says Vitale, is a statement unlike any other circulating in the electoral sphere. “The Sanders document says we need to quit using the police and prisons to solve problems” like poverty, mental illness, substance abuse, and even crime itself, and instead “actually fix the communities.” Let’s hope this idea goes mainstream.