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Sanders’s Criminal Justice Plan is a Lot Bigger Than One Bill

The Vermont senator’s attempts at justice reform are designed to make inroads with minority voters and catch attention on the hill.

Demo­crat­ic pres­id­en­tial can­did­ate Bernie Sanders will in­tro­duce a bill this week that aims to shut down private pris­ons, re­store fed­er­al pa­role, and cata­pult him­self in­to the cen­ter of the na­tion­al con­ver­sa­tion on crim­in­al-justice re­form.

Sanders’s bill will be re­leased just as a bi­par­tis­an group of sen­at­ors, led by Ju­di­ciary Chair­man Chuck Grass­ley and Minor­ity Whip Dick Durbin, is put­ting its fin­ish­ing touches on its own long-awaited re­form le­gis­la­tion. That bill is ex­pec­ted to re­duce some man­dat­ory min­im­ums and im­ple­ment pro­grams that ease of­fend­ers back in­to so­ci­ety after in­car­cer­a­tion.

In a month when Con­gress is di­vided over an Ir­a­ni­an nuc­le­ar deal and Re­pub­lic­an lead­ers are bra­cing for a po­ten­tial shut­down over Planned Par­ent­hood fund­ing, crim­in­al-justice re­form is a rare uni­fy­ing ker­nel of policy in Wash­ing­ton. And Sanders’s de­cision to roll out his plan now, in the face of po­ten­tial con­gres­sion­al dys­func­tion, is no co­in­cid­ence; it is key to his cam­paign’s iden­tity. Sanders is try­ing to re­mind voters he is above the fray on Cap­it­ol Hill, even if he needs the Sen­ate floor to dis­patch his mes­sage. Sanders’s style is far from that of Sen. Rand Paul, who fun­draised from the Sen­ate floor dur­ing the na­tion­al se­cur­ity de­bate in Con­gress, or Sen. Ted Cruz, who led a gov­ern­ment shut­down in 2013, but Sanders too has the abil­ity to use the Sen­ate as a launch­ing ground.

Roughly 20 per­cent of fed­er­al in­mates—41,150 people—are serving sen­tences in private pris­ons. That’s just a small frac­tion of the over­all fed­er­al pris­on pop­u­la­tion. Eras­ing private pris­ons does little to ad­dress the pris­on pipeline that has filled the fa­cil­it­ies in the first place. Yet Sanders in­sists his bill is a start. And with just a few months un­til the primary con­tests be­gin, bills are as much about op­tics as they are about sub­stance.

Sanders has struggled to break through over the last sev­er­al months with minor­ity voters—a pop­u­la­tion that has dis­pro­por­tion­ately been af­fected by the coun­try’s justice sys­tem. Are­cent CBS/YouGov poll showed that while Sanders is soar­ing among voters in Iowa and New Hamp­shire, he is strug­gling to re­gister with black voters.

Sanders’s cam­paign has made con­cer­ted ef­forts to reach out to those com­munit­ies in care­fully craf­ted speeches. Yet even when he does try, he has fallen short. Ac­cord­ing to The New York Times, Sanders spoke to a “half-empty gym­nas­i­um at Be­ne­dict Col­lege in South Car­o­lina” this past Sat­urday. And even though Be­ne­dict is his­tor­ic­ally a black school, the Times re­por­ted that the “crowd ap­peared to be largely white.”

Gal­lup poll last month showed that while Hil­lary Clin­ton had 80 per­cent fa­vor­ab­il­ity among black voters, Sanders was re­l­at­ively un­known in the com­munity. Just over 30 per­cent of black voters said they were fa­mil­i­ar with the Ver­mont sen­at­or and just 23 per­cent had a fa­vor­able opin­ion of him.

In Iowa and New Hamp­shire, Sanders’s lack of ap­peal among minor­ity voters may not make or break his as­pir­a­tions to win the Demo­crat­ic nom­in­a­tion. But black and His­pan­ic voters will mat­ter greatly in oth­er early states, like Nevada, Flor­ida, and South Car­o­lina. For Sanders, justice re­form is his po­ten­tial selling point to res­on­ate with minor­ity voters without ali­en­at­ing the white lib­er­als and pro­gress­ives who make up the base of his sup­port.

Sanders’s im­age has al­ways been that of an ideal­ist, a self-pro­claimed Demo­crat­ic so­cial­ist happy to be re­leg­ated as an out­sider in or­der to stay true to his lib­er­al vis­ion. Yet he has an op­por­tun­ity on Cap­it­ol Hill. He has a chance to un­veil his po­s­i­tion on crim­in­al-justice re­form in a way that goes bey­ond a policy pa­per from the cam­paign trail.

Sanders’s crim­in­al-justice-re­form bill is more than simply a piece of le­gis­la­tion. It is one of the first times we are see­ing the vis­ion­ary sen­at­or strategiz­ing like a ser­i­ous can­did­ate in the Demo­crat­ic primar­ies.

(Image via Juli Hansen / Shutterstock.com )

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