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Sanders Calls Criminal Justice Reform the 'Civil Rights Issue of the Century'

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From flickr.com/photos/80038275@N00/22721145182/: Bernie Sanders
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COLUMBIA, S.C. -- U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders on Saturday called criminal justice reform the "civil rights issue of the 21st century" and detailed a series of reforms needed in a nation where more inmates are behind bars than any other country and a disproportionate number of prisoners are minorities.

"For too long in this country politicians have used getting tough on crime as a wedge issue to win elections. It is clearly about time to start talking -- as we have in this election -- about the really disastrous effects of too many politicians trying to win too many elections by locking too many people up," Sanders told a forum on criminal justice reform at Allen University.

"And we should lay it all right out on the table." Sanders added. "People in American jails are disproportionately people of color. That's the reality in America today. That's a reality that has to change."

Among what he called "shocking statistics," Sanders said one in four black males born today can expect to spend time in prison during their lifetime; that blacks are imprisoned at six times the rate of whites and that minorities are sentenced to death at significantly higher rates than whites. He also noted that the Department of Justice found that blacks were three times more likely to be searched during a traffic stop, compared to white motorists.

Sanders also spoke about what he called an "endless stream of tragedies" that he said "screams out for justice" involving blacks killed by police during arrests or while in custody.

"The Black Lives Matter movement which has arisen in response to these deaths has done a needed and commendable job in raising public awareness of this issue. The proliferation of cell phone video has brought the reality of these deaths into the living room and onto the computer screens of people across this country. I know you have heard these names before but they bear repeating so we do not lose sight of the real human price being paid: Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Walter Scott, Freddie Gray, Sandra Bland, Tamir Rice, Samuel Dubose, Rekia Boyd and too many more. But people must do more than just echo the phrase Black Lives Matter. We must put actions behind those words. Actions that will bring about the fundamental reform that is needed in the face of this crisis," Sanders said.

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Declaring that "the killings of African-Americans has got to stop," Sanders put police reform at the top of a list of proposals to remake the criminal justice system in the United States. "Too many African-Americans and other minorities find themselves subjected to a system that treats citizens who have not committed crimes like criminals," Sanders said.

Sanders' proposals include:

  • Eliminating for-profit prisons within two years.
  • Ending mandatory minimum sentencing and giving judges the discretion to better tailor sentences to the specific facts of a given case.
  • Removing marijuana from the federal list of controlled substances and letting states decide whether possession should be a crime.
  • Establishing a new federal police training program that trains police to de-escalate confrontations and to humanely interact with people with mental illnesses.
  • Making police forces reflect the diversity of our communities.
  • Requiring greater civilian oversight of police departments and ongoing and meaningful community engagement.
  • Making law enforcement officers wear body cameras to help hold them accountable while protecting the privacy of innocent people.
  • Providing federal funding to help state and local governments adopt new policing standards. State and local governments who participate in police reform should be rewarded by the federal government. Those who do not should have federal justice funding withheld.

Senator Bernie Sanders
Presidential Justice Forum
Allen University
Columbia, South Carolina

Thank you for holding this critically important forum on the issue of criminal justice reform. For too long in this country politicians have used getting tough on crime as a wedge issue to win elections. It is clearly about time to start talking -- as we have in this election -- about the really disastrous effects of too many politicians trying to win too many elections by locking too many people up.

All of this has led to the tragic reality that we -- the United States of America -- have more people in jail than any other country on earth. We have more people in jail than China which is an authoritarian state
with a population many times our own. And we should lay it all right out on the table. People in American jails are disproportionately people of color. That's the reality in America today. That's a reality that has to change.

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I'm going to start with an issue that is on everyone's mind, the continuing struggle for racial justice in America. Let's start with horrible facts:

  • If current trends continue, one in four black males born today can expect to spend time in prison during their lifetime. This is an unspeakable tragedy.
  • Blacks are imprisoned at six times the rate of whites.
  • People of color are incarcerated, policed and sentenced to death at significantly higher rates than their white counterparts.
  • One in every 15 African-American men is incarcerated, compared to one in every 106 white men.
  • The Department of Justice found that blacks were three times more likely to be searched during a traffic stop, compared to white motorists.
  • African-Americans are twice as likely to be arrested and almost four times as likely to experience the use of force during encounters with the police.
  • African-Americans make up two-fifths of confined youth today.
  • African-American women are three times more likely than white women to be incarcerated.
  • Once convicted, black offenders receive longer sentences (10 percent longer) than white offenders for the same crimes.
  • Thirteen percent of African-American men have lost the right to vote due to felony convictions.

These are shocking statistics to say the least. But before we even address those we have to deal with the most urgent and obvious issue that needs to be addressed head on. And that is the killing of African-Americans by police or deaths while in custody. The seemingly endless stream of tragedies we hear about screams out for justice. The Black Lives Matter movement which has arisen in response to these deaths has done a needed and commendable job in raising the public awareness of this issue. The proliferation of cell phone video has brought the reality of these deaths into the living room and onto the computer screen of people across this country. I know you have heard these names before but they bear repeating so we do not lose sight of the real human price being paid: Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Walter Scott, Freddie Gray, Sandra Bland, Tamir Rice, Samuel Dubose, Rekia Boyd and too many more.

But people must do more than just echo the phrase Black Lives Matter. We must put actions behind those words. Actions that will bring about the fundamental reform that is needed in the face of this crisis. Criminal justice reform must be the civil rights issue of the 21st century and the most first piece has to be police reform. The killings of African-Americans has got to stop.

Across the nation, too many African-Americans and other minorities find themselves subjected to a system that treats citizens who have not committed crimes like criminals. A growing number of communities do not trust the police and police have become disconnected from the communities they are sworn to protect.

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Bernie Sanders is the independent U.S. Senator from Vermont. He is the longest serving independent member of Congress in American history. He is a member of the Senate's Budget, Veterans, Environment, Energy, and H.E.L.P. (Health, Education, (more...)
 

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