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The Sanders Plan to Overhaul
The Criminal Justice System

by Paul Rockwell
Oakland, California

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.

I live one mile away from the Fruitvale BART Station in Oakland, California, where Oscar Grant, lying on the floor, 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. The event concluded with Shaun King’s reading of a letter from Senator and presidential candidate 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. 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.”

The letter was not an isolated gesture. In 2017 Sanders published a book for teenagers, Guide to Political Revolution. It includes a militant chapter on the murders of black youth, men and women: “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. …”

Sanders calls for an end to “the war on drugs,” which functions as a vehicle for incarcerating African Americans. “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.”

While the ills of the criminal justice system are widely understood in black and brown communities, Sander’s response is not well known. 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.

“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 neither of these two groups make up even one quarter 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, but his impassioned response to mass incarceration should not be overlooked.

Paul Rockwell is a columnist for In Motion Magazine. He can be reached at

Published in In Motion Magazine February 9, 2020.

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