Sanders: Cut Prison Population in Half, Create Civilian Corps of Unarmed First Responders

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Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) unveiled a sweeping criminal justice reform plan Sunday aimed to combat “institutional racism” in the country. The plan includes diversifying police forces, creating a civilian corps of unarmed first responders, ending cash bail, and cutting the U.S. prison population in half.

Sanders released his plan as part of his effort to combat what he says is institutional racism and the criminalization of poverty.

“Hundreds of thousands of incarcerated people in America have not been convicted of a crime and are solely in jail because they can’t afford their bail. We are criminalizing poverty,” his plan states, adding that mass incarceration “disproportionately falls on the shoulders of black and brown people in America” due to the “legacy” of institutional racism.

Sanders’ scheme is full of broad promises, such as ending cash bail, which he plans to implement with a carrot-and-stick approach, threatening to “withhold funding from states that continue the use of cash bail systems.” He also promises to address issues within the police force, in part with the creation of a “federally managed database” to track officers who use “deadly force.”

Additionally, the socialist senator calls for the creation of a “civilian corps of unarmed first responders” made up of EMTs, social workers and other trained professionals who “can handle order maintenance violations, mental health emergencies, and low-level conflicts outside the criminal justice system.” This, he argues, will free up police officers, allowing them to focus on more series crimes. His plan offers no details on the criteria departments would use to categorize a “low-level” conflict or how they would determine if force was needed.

Sanders’ focuses heavily on the diversification of police forces with a focus on “implicit bias” training.

He would:

  • Establish national standards for use of force by police that emphasize de-escalation.
  • Require and fund police officer training on implicit bias (to include biases based on race, gender, sexual orientation and identity, religion, ethnicity and class), cultural competency, de-escalation, crisis intervention, adolescent development, and how to interact with people with mental and physical disabilities. We will ensure that training is conducted in a meaningful way with strict independent oversight and enforceable guidelines.
  • Ban the practice of any law enforcement agency benefiting from civil asset forfeiture.  Limit or eliminate federal criminal justice funding for any state or locality that does not comply.
  • Provide funding to states and municipalities to create civilian corps of unarmed first responders, such as social workers, EMTs, and trained mental health professionals, who can handle order maintenance violations, mental health emergencies, and low-level conflicts outside the criminal justice system, freeing police officers to concentrate on the most serious crimes.
  • Incentivize access to counseling and mental health services for officers.
  • Diversify police forces and academies and incentivize officers to live and work in the communities they serve.

Much emphasis is put on Sanders’ pledge to end “mass incarceration,” which he believes is the result of “institutional racism” in the country. He wants to cut the prison population in half and will do so, in part, by “end [ing] the War on Drugs that has disproportionately affected black and brown people.”

He plans to:

  • Legalize marijuana and vacate and expunge past marijuana convictions, and ensure that revenue from legal marijuana is reinvested in communities hit hardest by the War on Drugs.
  • Provide people struggling with addiction with the health care they need by guaranteeing health care — including inpatient and outpatient substance abuse and mental health services with no copayments or deductibles — to all people as a right, not a privilege, through a Medicare-for-all, single-payer program.
  • Decriminalize possession of buprenorphine, which helps to treat opioid addiction, and ensure that first responders carry naloxone to prevent overdoses.
  • Legalize safe injection sites and needle exchanges around the country, and support pilot programs for supervised injection sites, which have shown to substantially reduce drug overdose deaths.
  • Raise the threshold for when drug charges are federalized, as federal charges carry longer sentences.
  • Work with states to fund and pursue innovative overdose prevention initiatives.
  • Institute a full review of the current sentencing guidelines and end the sentencing disparity between crack and cocaine.

“Capital punishment has failed to reduce violent crime and is disproportionately apportioned to the poor and black and brown people,” Sanders continues. “It has also cost innocent lives. ”

His comprehensive plan to end mass incarceration also includes stopping “excessing sentencing,” ending mandatory sentencing minimums, halting “three strikes” laws, expanding alternatives such as “publicly-funded halfway houses,” and stopping the “criminalization of homelessness” by expanding grants to “build permanent supportive housing.”

Sanders argues that “prison is not a solution for social problems” and emphasizes the importance of addressing “deeper structural problems” that trigger criminal behavior, listing “joblessness, income inequality, lack of education, and untreated substance abuse” as examples. He weaved in his other key proposals – like implementing a federally-mandated $15 hourly wage, Medicare for all, a federal jobs guarantee, and paid family leave – as part of the solutions to address criminality and imprisonment in America.

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