Bernie Sanders Can Help Solve the Mass Incarceration Crisis in America

Ending the horrors of our criminal justice system won't just require proposing strong progressive criminal justice policy — it will also require building a mass movement that can end mass incarceration. Bernie Sanders is the only candidate who's doing both.

Bernie Sanders speaks to supporters at a campaign rally in Queensbridge Park on October 19 in the Queens borough of New York City. (Kena Betancur / Getty Images)

This week, several leading presidential candidates — including Donald Trump — will gather in Columbia, South Carolina to discuss criminal justice reform and to offer plans for addressing the crisis of mass incarceration in America. The event is being held at Benedict College, less than an hour west of the Lee Correctional Institution, where seven young men bled to death last year during a riot that was the direct outcome of the barbarism of our nation’s prisons.

The conditions that led to the tragedy at Lee, and which are visible all over the country, have become so appalling that even politicians on the Right have begun to pay lip service to the problem. Though the United States makes up only 5 percent of the world’s population, we have 25 percent of its prisoners.

Despite the bipartisan consensus that our system is flawed, there has been little mainstream discussion of the kind of political and economic transformation we will need to end mass incarceration.

The exception to the rule is Bernie Sanders, who earlier this year rolled out the most ambitious and transformative criminal justice platform in modern history.

Sanders’s Justice and Safety for All platform advances three major paradigm shifts in criminal justice policy: 1) Shattering a zero-sum notion of justice, 2) Refuting the idea that you have to fix people to fix the system, and 3) Hitching criminal justice reform to the expansion of universal public goods. The Sanders platform makes clear that there can never be a just criminal justice system as long as there is an unjust and deeply unequal America.

To begin, Sanders’s platform rejects the idea that what’s bad for a person convicted of a crime is good for a person harmed by crime. This idea has fueled a decades-long sentencing arms race among politicians of both parties. But the zero-sum notion is a hollow, disingenuous trick. Continually devising ways to punish people ever more severely has only served to paper over the reality that crime survivors in the US are woefully underserved.

While politicians were busy throwing the book at those convicted of crimes, they neglected to provide housing, medical care, and paid time off for victims. Rather than ratcheting up excessive forms of punishment, which does little to make us safer, the Sanders platform invests in strategies that are known to reduce crime. The platform recognizes that “tough on crime” politics has long distorted how many people define safety. Real safety means having a stable place to live, quality healthcare, reliable transportation, clean water, and a job with dignity and workplace protections.

The platform replaces this zero-sum mentality by providing victims what they need while squarely repudiating criminal justice policies that scapegoat, divide, and weaken the working class.

The Safety and Justice for All plan also challenges the idea that crime is fundamentally about damaged individuals. In the US, both punitive and rehabilitative approaches to crime have rested on assumptions that those who languish in prisons and jails are morally, psychologically, and biologically inferior to those on the outside. These woefully incorrect — and racist — assumptions that reduce the world to good people versus bad people have been used to justify the brutal treatment of those caught up in the system.

It is no mere coincidence that the US has steadily reduced basic social protections while ramping up incarceration rates. The vast majority of people in prison and jail are not there because they are inferior, but because we have made political decisions to punish instead of provide for working people. The Sanders platform correctly tackles broader structural inequalities that contribute to patterns of crime and policing practices that suppress and punish the most marginalized. Rather than blaming individuals caught up in these policies of repression, the platform acknowledges that we have to fix the system – full stop.

Finally, Sanders’s most important intervention is that it focuses on the idea that expanding universal public goods is vital to criminal justice reform. Today, the dominant tendency in criminal justice policy, and beyond, is to tinker within the system, divorce public policy from larger structural inequality, and advance private sector solutions. The Sanders platform eschews the tinkering and pro-privatization strategies and instead puts Medicare for All, expansive public education commitments, a federal jobs guarantee, and public housing at the center of a comprehensive and inclusive social justice agenda.

The public perception of what someone in prison deserves is astoundingly low in part because so many living outside of prisons are denied basic necessities and dignity. At the same time, conditions in prisons drag down the standard of living for those on the outside. Exploitative labor practices in prisons have driven down wages, led to job losses, and have been a runaround to eliminate the basic rights and safety that workers have fought hard for. The only way out of this race to the bottom is to assure a quality standard of living for everyone.

Ultimately, no policy platform whether big, small, radical, or moderate will end mass incarceration. That will require a mass movement for a society that prioritizes the interests of working people. The Sanders criminal justice platform, and his campaign as a whole, puts forth new paradigms that build towards that goal.