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Prior to the current Democratic primary, I don’t recall any national election where any candidate dared to address mass incarceration and police murders of African Americans in the U.S. In 2017 Senator Bernie Sanders published a book for teenagers, A Guide to Political Revolution. It includes a militant chapter on the murders of black youth, men and women:

SAnders Criminal Justice Reform

“Eric Garner was choked to death in New York City after selling single cigarettes. Alto Sterling was shot while pinned on the ground by Baton Rouge police. Freddie Gray died of a spinal cord injury while in Baltimore custody. Twelve-year-old Tamir Rice was killed by Cleveland police officers within two seconds of their arrival on the scene….The killing of unarmed African Americans has emerged as one of the great civil rights issues of the twenty-first century.”

I live one mile away from Fruitvale BART Station in Oakland, California, where Oscar Grant was shot in the back by BART police on New Year’s Day, 2009. A month ago I attended the yearly vigil for Oscar Grant and his family. Christian pastors, ministers from the Nation of Islam, social activists, poets, singers, and dancers all celebrated Oscar’s life during an afternoon that was culturally, politically, and religiously diverse. One speaker read a letter of solidarity from Senator Bernie Sanders:

“To the family and friends of Oscar Grant, to the activists and organizers who supported this man, to the activists and organizers who supported many other families who have been impacted by police brutality and mass incarceration, my wife Jane and I stand in solidarity. We are sorry we cannot be there today in person, but we are thinking of you and look forward to meeting with you in California. l thank you for your courage and your dedication. Brothers and sisters, let us keep Oscar’s memory to remind us of the work we must all do together—to fundamentally change our justice system and to end police brutality. We are all in this together."

As far as I can tell from my own research, his plan to overhaul the criminal justice system is the most comprehensive, explicitly anti-racist agenda of any Democrat.

While the ills of the criminal justice system are widely understood in black and brown communities, Sanders’ response is not well-known. As far as I can tell from my own research, his plan to overhaul the criminal justice system is the most comprehensive, explicitly anti-racist agenda of any Democrat. It seeks to ban private prisons (“Private corporations should not be making profits off the incarceration of human beings”), to abolish the death penalty, end cash bail, halt solitary confinement. And by ending excessive sentences, the incarcerated population can be reduced by half.

Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow, does not endorse any candidate. But in 2016, she posted reflections on Sanders and the issues of mass incarceration.

“Although Bernie ultimately voted for the 1994 crime bill, he argued strenuously in opposition to it on the floor of Congress, calling it a 'punishment bill', and chastised legislators for their obsession with proving their toughness on crime while millions of people are going hungry and sleeping on the streets. He said, 'Let’s not keep putting poor people into jail and disproportionately punishing blacks.’"

She continued:

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“While our nation was awash in ‘get tough’ mania, Bernie stood up and spoke out against a bill that aimed to escalate the wars on poor communities of color.…Whether one agrees with every position Bernie has taken throughout his political career, there is no doubt of his longstanding commitment to civil rights.”

Sanders calls for an end to “the war on drugs,” which functions as a vehicle for incarcerating African Americans. His plan will legalize marijuana, expunge old pot-related convictions, and use tax revenue from marijuana sales to provide new capital for minority entrepreneurs.

Sanders writes:

“The number of incarcerated drug offenders has increased twelvefold since 1980 and this ‘war’ has disproportionately targeted people of color….Blacks are four times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession. Blacks are three times more likely to be searched during a traffic stop.”

“Overall blacks are imprisoned seven times the rate of whites. One in four black males today can expect to spend time in prison during his lifetime.…African American women are three times more likely to be incarcerated than white women….This is the destruction of a generation. This must change.”

“African Americans and Latinos together comprise 57 percent of all prisoners in 2015,” even though blacks are 13%, Hispanics and Latinos are 17% of the U.S. population.

“Disparities pervade every aspect of the criminal justice system,” Sanders writes on his website.

Sanders is already well-known for the Green New Deal, Medicare for All, debt-free education, and decent housing for all. But his impassioned, comprehensive plan to overhaul the criminal justice system and end mass incarceration should not be overlooked.

Paul Rockwell

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Paul Rockwell is an independent writer and does not work in any official capacity with any campaign.