Criminal justice reform has drawn great interest from both sides of the political aisle for years. But few presidential candidates have mentioned what they believe to be the core issue in need of reforming.
In a rare moment of public bipartisanship, Democratic and Republican lawmakers came together late last year with the passage of a bill, signed by President Trump, that is considered the most far-reaching overhaul of the criminal justice system in decades by expanding job training programs for prisoners and shortening sentences for some offenders, among other things.
At times, the president points to this moment when responding to perceived criticism about his attitude and policies toward African Americans, such as when film director Spike Lee in his Oscar acceptance speech told Americans to vote in 2020 and “make the moral choice between love versus hate.”
Trump tweeted in response: “Be nice if Spike Lee could read his notes, or better yet not have to use notes at all, when doing his racist hit on your President, who has done more for African Americans (Criminal Justice Reform, Lowest Unemployment numbers in History, Tax Cuts, etc.) than almost any other Pres!”
(Lee did not mention Trump in his speech.)
But beyond signing the bill, Trump has yet to expand upon what he believes is the root issue that needs to be reformed in the criminal justice system.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D.-Mass.), however, did just that on Monday night — and as a result could very well see a rise in support from black Americans for her 2020 presidential bid.
At a CNN town hall, a student planning to go into law enforcement asked Warren if she could assure him that she would back legislation that would keep law enforcement safe. The question, as the student noted, was a response to Warren’s ongoing criticism of law enforcement and her call for criminal justice reform.
Warren didn’t back away from the question, which some probably interpreted as loaded. Instead she doubled down on her commitment to criminal justice reform and noted what she believed to be the biggest issue affecting the criminal justice system.
“You know, I talk with a lot of people in different parts of the criminal justice system, people who are law enforcement, people who are in the judicial system, people who are incarcerated,” Warren said, “… and what all of them tell me is we’ve got a problem. Our criminal justice system is broken, and right at the heart of that problem is race, and we have to address this head-on.”
According to the NAACP, black Americans are incarcerated at more than five times the rate of whites. An ACLU survey of American SWAT teams found “dynamic entry” and paramilitary police tactics are disproportionately used against black and Latino people. Most of these raids targeted people suspected of low-level drug crimes.
Last year, the Boston University Law Review published a study that found the “black arrest rate is at least twice as high as the white arrest rate for disorderly conduct, drug possession, simple assault, theft, vagrancy, and vandalism. The black arrest rate for prostitution is almost five times higher than the white arrest rate, and the black arrest rate for gambling is almost ten times higher.”
(Washington Post opinion writer Radley Balko, who focuses on criminal justice issues, has provided more examples of how the criminal justice system treats people of color differently than white people.)
If the efforts to reform the country’s criminal justice system are going to continue, those committed to it will have to identify the fundamental issues that must be addressed. Warren has pointed to what she believes is behind the problem, and many academics who have studied the issue agree with her. For a Democratic electorate that includes thousands of voters who view racism as one of the biggest issues affecting America, a candidate who is actively addressing this issue will be highly attractive.