Politics & Policy

Sanders’s Criminal-Justice Plan Is Wrong in So Many Ways

Sen. Bernie Sanders speaks at the 2019 Iowa Democratic Wing Ding in Clear Lake, Iowa, August 9, 2019. (Gage Skidmore)
It’s based on the false premise that the justice system is draconian and racially oppressive, and it ignores that most prisoners are in state, not federal, prisons.

Earlier this week, Senator and presidential candidate Bernie Sanders released a fairly comprehensive criminal-justice plan, boldly entitled “Justice and Safety for All.” Criminal-justice reform has been a major theme of the 2020 campaign, and support for large-scale decarceration has emerged as a must-pass ideological litmus test for those seeking the Democratic-party nomination.

While the stated ends of Sanders’s plan (fairness and safer streets) are unobjectionable on their face, a closer look at the means by which he proposes to achieve them should set off  alarms for those of us who care about public safety.

The plan starts from the popular (but ultimately false) premise that the criminal-justice system is draconian and racially oppressive; largely because of this false premise, the plan’s prescriptions are unlikely to do any good.

Take, for instance, the plan’s goal of achieving a 50 percent reduction in the incarcerated population.

First, this a major flaw given that most of the criminal-justice system operates at the state level. Sanders implies that he could enact his proposed reforms unilaterally “as president.” But you can’t cut incarceration 50 percent through federal policy — either through presidential or congressional action — if only 10 percent or so of prisoners are federal to begin with.

Second, the goal of a 50 percent reduction is based on Sanders’s belief that our incarceration rate is driven “in no small part” by “extremely harsh sentencing policies and the War on Drugs.” This is simply untrue.

Drug offenders constitute less than 15 percent of state prisoners, who constitute about 88 percent of all prisoners in the U.S. Four times as many state prisoners are in for murder, robbery, rape/sexual assault, burglary, or aggravated/simple assault.

Moreover, the median term served by state prisoners is only about 16 months; and when it comes to drug offenders, about half (45 percent) serve less than a year in prison. Even 20 percent of state prisoners in for murder are out within five years.

A Bureau of Justice Statistics study found that more than a third of violent felons had an active criminal-justice status (i.e., were on probation, parole, or out with pending charges) when they committed their offense. Coupled with the fact that a 50 percent reduction in the prison population would require releasing or diverting scores of serious, chronic, and violent offenders, it’s safe to say that the decarceration component of Sanders’s plan would actually undermine the public’s safety if implemented.

Another example of the plan’s incongruity with its stated goal of maximizing safety is its call to ban punitive segregation — or as it’s more commonly known, “solitary confinement.” This is an experiment New York City has already conducted, having taken solitary off the table for jail inmates under the age of 21. That process began in 2016. By 2018, NYC jails had seen twice as many violent incidents than there were 20 years earlier, despite having half the average daily population, and employing close to the same number of corrections officers.

Sanders’s proposals demonstrate his misapprehension of key concepts and data. The plan libelously equates “Broken Windows” policing with “racial profiling” without bothering to explain what Broken Windows actually is. The plan also misleads voters by claiming that the “use of excessive force” by police, “including deadly shootings of unarmed civilians,” is “widespread.” On the contrary, police rarely use any force at all when making arrests, and when they do, it is almost never enough to cause serious injury to the suspect.

Yet another example of the plan’s misdirection is its assertion that “children with incarcerated parents tend to do worse in school, experience anxiety and depression, and develop behavioral issues.” But how much of that can be attributed to the antisocial behaviors of their parents separate and apart from their incarceration? Sanders doesn’t say. What’s left out are the studies showing that parental and sibling incarceration actually improves outcomes for children whose parents are on the margins of incarceration.

In Politico, Holly Otterbein referred to Sanders’s plan as “full-throated progressive agenda.” Perhaps that’s a throat in need of clearing. At 6,000 words, Sanders’ may be long on big ideas, but that doesn’t mean they’re good ones.

Rafael A. Mangual is a fellow and deputy director of legal policy at the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, and a contributing editor of City Journal.

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