Sentencing Reform and Reducing Prison Population

Q70: Do you support sentencing reform and eliminating mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent drug offenses?

Biden: Yes. Equality, equity, justice – these ideas form the American creed. We have never lived up to it and we haven’t always gotten it right, but we’ve never stopped trying. This is especially true when it comes to our criminal justice system. Today, too many people are incarcerated in the United States – and too many of them are black and brown. To build safe and healthy communities, we need to rethink who we’re sending to jail, how we treat those in jail, and how we help them get the health care, education, jobs, and housing they need to successfully rejoin society after they serve their time. As president, I will strengthen America’s commitment to justice and reform our criminal justice system.

We can and must reduce the number of people incarcerated in this country while also reducing crime. No one should be incarcerated for drug use alone. Instead, they should be diverted to drug courts and treatment. I will also eliminate mandatory minimums and end, once and for all, the federal crack and powder cocaine disparity. I will decriminalize the use of cannabis and automatically expunge all prior cannabis use convictions. And I will expand effective alternatives to detention and use the president’s clemency power to secure the release of individuals facing unduly long sentences for certain non-violent and drug crimes. I will end the criminalization of poverty, starting with an end to cash bail and reform of our pretrial system.

View details of my comprehensive criminal justice reform plan, which includes sentencing reform and eliminating mandatory minimum sentences, HERE.

Bloomberg: Yes. Mike will press states to end three-strikes and mandatory minimums laws, which have led to excessive sentencing with consequences that have fallen disproportionately on Black communities. He will sign a bill repealing those penalties federally and removing the disparity between crack and powder cocaine sentences.

Mike will conduct a wide-ranging study on recidivism risk—and recommend new federal sentences and guidelines. He will press for a state overhaul by bringing attention to especially punitive state laws and those with racially disproportionate impacts.

Buttigeig: Yes. Eliminating mandatory minimums and decreasing overall sentence length for a significant number of crimes is critical to ensuring that people are not incarcerated when there is no effect on public safety, and it will reduce incarceration. It also will eliminate the role mandatory minimums plays in incentivizing people to plead guilty for crimes they did not commit.

De La Fuente: Yes. The failed criminal justice reform programs that lock up minorities disproportionately at the expense of the American taxpayer is a crime in and of itself. We must fight back against the “private prisons” industrial complex.

Klobuchar: Yes. Senator Klobuchar believes it is time for the Second Step Act. The First Step Act — which made key federal sentencing and prison reforms — only applied to those held in federal prisons and didn’t help the nearly 90 percent of incarcerated populations in state and local facilities. Senator Klobuchar will create federal incentives so that states can restore some discretion from mandatory sentencing for nonviolent offenders. She will also reform the cash bail system, expand funding for public defenders, eliminate obstacles to re-entering and participating fully in society, and fight for expanded drug courts. And during the first month of her presidency, Senator Klobuchar will create a clemency advisory board as well as a position in the White House — outside of the Department of Justice — that advises the President from a criminal justice reform perspective.

Sanders: Yes. As President, Bernie will cut the national prison population in half and end mass incarceration by abolishing the death penalty, three strikes laws, and mandatory minimum sentences, as well as expanding the use of alternatives to detention. Furthermore, Bernie understands that the disastrous policies that make up the War on Drugs have not reduced drug use and violent crime. When Bernie is in the White House he will 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.

Steyer: Yes. My administration will eliminate mandatory minimums for non-violent crimes and will advocate a partial repeal of the 1994 Crime Bill, including the three-strikes rule and grant programs that incentivize incarceration. He will direct the Sentencing Commission to update guidelines to reflect the latest studies and will design fairer risk assessment standards. He will also restructure immigration enforcement to lower the population of immigrants in detention.

Warren: Yes. The federal prison population has grown 650% since 1980, and costs have ballooned by 685%. This explosion has been driven in large part by rules requiring mandatory minimum sentences and other excessively long sentencing practices. These harsh sentencing practices are not only immoral, there’s little evidence that they are effective. As president I will fight to change them. The 1994 crime bill exacerbated incarceration rates in this country, punishing people more severely for even minor infractions, and limiting discretion in charging and sentencing in our judicial system. That punitive “tough on crime” approach was wrong, it was a mistake, and it needs to be repealed. There are some sections of law, like those relating to domestic violence, that should be retained — but the bulk of the law must go. Specifically, the 1994 crime bill’s mandatory minimums and “truth-in-sentencing” provisions that require offenders to serve the vast majority of their sentences have not proven effective. Congress should reduce or eliminate these provisions, giving judges more flexibility in sentencing decisions, with the goal of reducing incarceration to mid-1990s levels. My administration will also reverse the Sessions memo that requires federal prosecutors to seek the most severe possible penalties, and allow federal prosecutors discretion to raise the charge standards for misdemeanors and seek shorter sentences for felony convictions.

Q71: Do you support federal funding for second chance programs that provide reentry rehabilitation, youth crime prevention, work transition services and other

Biden: Yes. I believe in redemption. After incarcerated individuals serve their time, they should have the opportunity to fully reintegrate into society, earn a good living, and participate in our democracy as our fellow citizens. It will not only benefit them, it will benefit all of society. It is also our best strategy to reduce recidivism. As president I will set a national goal of ensuring 100% of formerly incarcerated individuals have housing upon reentry. I will expand access to mental health and substance use disorder treatment, as well as educational opportunities and job training for individuals during and after incarceration. And I will work to eliminate existing barriers preventing formerly incarcerated individuals from fully participating in society, including barriers keeping formerly incarcerated individuals from accessing public assistance such as SNAP, Pell grants, and housing support. I will create incentives for states to automatically restore voting rights for individuals convicted of felonies once they have served their sentences.

I will also create a new $20 billion competitive grant program to spur states to shift from incarceration to prevention. I will work to ensure that people who should be supported with social services – instead of in our prisons – are connected to the help they need and invest $1 billion per year in juvenile justice reform. View details of my comprehensive criminal justice reform plan, which includes rehabilitation and diversion programs, juvenile justice reform, and other initiatives, H ERE.

Bloomberg: Yes. Mike will help people re-enter society with dignity and renewed sense of optimism. He will fund a works program to help connect the formerly incarcerated with sustainable employment, expand grants to build housing, invest in credible messenger credentialing programs, and broaden access to public housing, welfare, and student loans.

Buttigeig: Yes. I will provide funding to empower states to provide better opportunities for individuals to prepare for life after incarceration. States are already working on reforms that provide better opportunities for incarcerated individuals, and I intend to encourage, support, and greatly expand these reforms. For example, programs like South Carolina’s Second Chance Program could be expanded across the country to help people who are incarcerated to prepare for employment once they return home. I am committed to working with states to ensure that they provide assistance to people preparing to return home after incarceration, including obtaining state identification, voter registration, information on timelines for expungement, and requirements for certificates of rehabilitation.

De La Fuente: Yes. We must have restorative justice in America. Our nation was founded on that principle.

Klobuchar: Yes. Senator Klobuchar believes we must do more to support returning citizens and ensure that people under probation or supervised release are not unnecessarily pushed into prison. Some states have made significant progress reducing recidivism rates through reforms to probation and parole. In North Carolina, improvements to community supervision and the rolling back of technical violations led to 19.3 percent reduction in recidivism rates according to a 2014 National Reentry Resource Center report. As President, Senator Klobuchar will work with states across the country to make similar reforms while working to strengthen reentry services and opportunities for returning citizens.

Sanders: Yes. This year, three-quarters of a million people will return home from prison and millions more from jails. Most of them will face enormous barriers that make successful re-entry nearly impossible. We must put an end to employment discrimination and eliminate barriers to training and education. Once someone has served their time they should not be excluded from social programs, public housing, medical care, and the right to vote and serve on juries.

As president, Bernie will:

  • Make expungement broadly available.
  • Remove legal and regulatory barriers and facilitate access to services so that people returning home from jail or prison can build a stable and productive life.
  • Remove the profit motive from our re-entry system and diversion, community supervision, or treatment programs, and ensure people leaving incarceration or participating in diversion, community supervision, or treatment programs can do so free of charge.
  • Create a federal agency responsible for monitoring re-entry.
  • “Ban the box” by removing questions regarding conviction histories from job and other applications.
  • Enact fair chance licensing reform to remove unfair restrictions on occupational licensure based on criminal history.
  • Increase funding for re-entering youth programs. We will also pass a massive youth jobs program to provide jobs and job-training opportunities for disadvantaged young Americans who face high unemployment rates.
  • Guarantee safe, decent, affordable housing.
  • Remove the profit motive from our re-entry system and diversion, community supervision, or treatment programs, and ensure people leaving incarceration or participating in diversion, community supervision, or treatment programs can do so free of charge.
  • Guarantee jobs and free job training at trade schools and apprenticeship programs.

Bernie will also end the school to prison pipeline and invest in local youth diversion programs as alternatives to the court and prison system.

Bernie also believes incarceration should always be a last resort, but when it is necessary, the conditions of confinement should be safe, humane, and designed for rehabilitation. Yet, too often, jails are violent and deeply destabilizing places. They not only fail to prepare people to reintegrate into society, they affirmatively make people more traumatized, sick, and vulnerable.

He will move our country away from an overly-punitive approach to public safety and start focusing on how to safeguard our communities, prevent the conditions that lead to arrests, and rehabilitate people who have made mistakes.

Steyer: Yes. As president, I will invest in reentry through the Second Chance Act Grant Program, improve workplace opportunities by banning the box, provide $100 million in Department of Labor reentry employment opportunity grants, and institute washout periods for non-violent offenders job applicants. I will also restore the right to vote for all formerly incarcerated individuals and will direct the census to count prisoners at their home address rather than in the district in which they are incarcerated.

Warren: Yes. Even as we cut down on the number of people we imprison, we must also increase our investment in the people we do incarcerate so that they are fully prepared to re-enter society when they are released. I’ll invest in rehabilitation and occupational programs and mental health and substance abuse treatment in correctional facilities. And, I’ll work to remove barriers that too often prevent returning citizens from successfully reintegrating into their communities after they’ve served their time. I’ll pressure states to eliminate collateral sanctions that hamper reentry, from restrictions on occupational licensing to housing to the disenfranchisement of over 3 million returning citizens. I’ll work to remove needlessly restrictive parole requirements, reduce parole requirements for low-level offenders, and remove the threat of jail time for minor parole violations. And I support establishing a certificate of recovery for nonviolent offenders who maintain clean records. Finally, it’s critical that we provide support to people with disabilities — a group disproportionately represented in our criminal justice system — who are formerly incarcerated. That’s why I’ll support re-entry by funding partnerships between the re-entry system, Vocational Rehab, and Centers for Independent Living.

Q72: Do you support re-authorization of the Juvenile Justice Delinquency and Prevention Act (JJDPA)?

Biden: Yes. One of the federal government’s most significant tools for shaping juvenile justice policy is through grant programs to fund and incentivize state action. The Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act allows states to use funds for purposes such as providing children with legal representation and helping them seal and expunge records. In return for taking these funds, states have to fulfill requirements such as prohibiting children from being incarcerated in facilities where they will interact with incarcerated adults and addressing the disproportionate representation of children of color in the juvenile justice system. Congress recently reauthorized this Act at a funding level of $176 million per year, but only appropriated $60 million in funds for fiscal year 2019. As president, I will push for full funding of the Act and then go further, investing a total of $1 billion per year to reform our juvenile justice system.

Bloomberg: Yes.

Buttigeig: Yes. I will remove youths from adult courts, jails, and prisons. My administration will fully fund the Juvenile Justice Reform Act to ensure that every state has resources to implement the requirements of the Act, including the provisions to remove youths from adult jails. I will also prioritize and incentivize states and localities to fully implement the Prison Rape Elimination Act’s (PREA) Youthful Inmate Standard to completely remove all youth from adult jails and adult prisons.

De La Fuente: Yes.

Klobuchar: Yes. Senator Klobuchar was a co-sponsor of the Juvenile Justice Delinquency and Prevention Act to amend and reauthorize the JJDPA.

Sanders: Yes.

We must treat children like children in our criminal justice system. We must end the school-to-prison pipeline. Black students, even in preschool, are nearly four times as likely to be suspended as white students, putting them at greater risk of falling behind and getting caught up in the juvenile justice system. Black and brown students and students with disabilities are more likely to be subjected to exclusionary discipline measures than their peers. When a child is pushed out of school they lose instructional time and are more likely to become involved with the juvenile and adult justice systems.

As president, Bernie will:

  • Ban the prosecution of children under the age of 18 in adult courts.
  • Work to ensure that all juvenile facilities are designed for rehabilitation and growth.
  • Ensure youth are not jailed or imprisoned for misdemeanor offenses.
  • Ensure juveniles are not be housed in adult prisons.
  • End solitary confinement for youth.
  • Abolish long mandatory minimum sentences and life-without-parole sentences for youth.
  • Eliminate criminal charges for school-based disciplinary behavior that would not otherwise be criminal and invest in school nurses, counselors, teachers, teaching assistants, and small class sizes to address disciplinary issues.
  • Ensure every school has the necessary school counselors and wrap-around services by providing $5 billion annually to expand the sustainable community school model.
  • End the use of juvenile fees.
  • Decriminalize truancy for all youth and their parents.
  • Eliminate federal incentives for schools to implement zero-tolerance policies.
  • Invest in local youth diversion programs as alternatives to the court and prison system.
  • Work with teachers, school administrators, and the disability rights movement to end restraint and seclusion discipline in schools.
  • Remove the profit motive from our re-entry system and diversion, community supervision, or treatment programs, and ensure people leaving incarceration or participating in diversion, community supervision, or treatment programs can do so free of charge.

Steyer: Yes.

Warren: Yes. The 2018 reauthorization of the JJDPA was a rare point of agreement between Senate Democrats and Republicans, passing with unanimous approval. As president, I’ll continue the work of ensuring that justice-involved young people have the resources they need to prosper. That includes ending the school-to-prison pipeline, raising the age of adult criminal liability to 18, eliminating life-without-parole sentences for minors, and diverting young adult offenders into rehabilitative programs wherever possible. I’ll also work to ensure that juvenile facilities and alternative schools are providing the same well-rounded culturally-relevant curricula and IDEA services as traditional public schools.

Q73: Do you support policies that enforce the human rights of incarcerated women not to be shackled during labor and delivery?

Biden: Yes. Women inherently have different basic health care needs than incarcerated men. I will condition receipt of federal criminal justice grants on adequate provision of primary care and gynecological care for women, including care for pregnant women. My administration will also review the efficacy of programs that allow non-violent offenders who are primary care providers for their children to serve their sentences through in-home monitoring.

Bloomberg: Yes.

Buttigeig: Yes. For pregnant women, I will enforce and enhance federal standards and protocols for pregnancy, prenatal, and postpartum care. We will also ensure that the First Step Act is properly funded and enforced, including its provision barring the shackling of pregnant women, and instruct the Bureau of Prisons to update standards for post-birth contact between mother and child and develop new programs and initiatives that allow for mothers to spend time with their newborns and other children.

De La Fuente: Yes.

Klobuchar: Yes. Senator Klobuchar helped pass the First Step Act, which prohibited pregnant women from being shackled while in federal custody. As President, she will work with state and local governments to end the practice of shackling incarcerated women during labor and delivery and to provide health care services, including primary care and pregnancy- related services, in all prisons.

Sanders: Yes. It is absolutely shameful that prisons restrain women giving birth. This must end. America’s prisons are hotbeds of human rights violations, torture, sexual assault, and wrongful imprisonment. Prisoners are being crammed into overcrowded cells and made to live in unsanitary conditions. They are not getting the medical attention they need and are being forced to work as modern-day indentured servants while corporations rake in profits. We must put an end to this barbarism and respect the rights of all human beings and treat them with basic dignity. As President, Bernie will enact a Prisoner Bill of Rights that guarantees, among other things, access to free medical care in prisons and jails, including professional and humane comprehensive reproductive and maternity care.

Steyer: Yes. My administration supports the Support the Dignity for Incarcerated Women Act, which will bar the shameful practice of shackling and restraining pregnant women, provide better healthcare, including mental health and reproductive care, and require prisons to provide free feminine products for incarcerated females.

Warren: Yes. Senator Cory Booker and I introduced the Dignity for Incarcerated Women Act, which would make serious reforms to the way women are treated behind bars and included provisions that would effectively ban the shackling of pregnant women. This provision of our bill was included in the First Step Act, which was signed into law in December 2018.

Q74: Do you have a plan to end mass incarceration?

Biden: Yes. We can and must reduce the number of people incarcerated in this country while also reducing crime. No one should be incarcerated for drug use alone. Instead, they should be diverted to drug courts and treatment. I will also eliminate mandatory minimums and end, once and for all, the federal crack and powder cocaine disparity. I will decriminalize the use of cannabis and automatically expunge all prior cannabis use convictions. And I will expand effective alternatives to detention and use the president’s clemency power to secure the release of individuals facing unduly long sentences for certain non-violent and drug crimes. I will end the criminalization of poverty, starting with an end to cash bail and reform of our pretrial system.

I will also create a new $20 billion competitive grant program to spur states to shift from incarceration to prevention. I will work to ensure that people who should be supported with social services – instead of in our prisons – are connected to the help they need and invest $1 billion per year in juvenile justice reform.

View details of my comprehensive criminal justice reform plan HERE.

Bloomberg: Yes. Mike is committed to ending the era of mass incarceration, with goals of reducing the prison population by 50% by 2030, halving youth incarceration within four years, and starting re-entry the first day a person enters prison. Mike will make it a priority to increase funding for public defenders and confront deep-seated racial and economic inequities that fall largely on Black, Latino and other underserved communities. As president, Mike will protect people at every touchpoint in the justice system: from supporting innovative pretrial efforts that stop the reliance on incarceration to addressing unjust and excessive sentencing in the courtroom. Mike’s administration will re-imagine our prisons as a place for rehabilitation by creating a new federal work program and providing robust services for people returning from prison. His plan will also invest in young men of color, helping them find pathways to opportunity through new educational and community initiatives.

Buttigeig: Yes. America’s mass incarceration crisis has been driven in large part by excessive sentencing. Powerful evidence confirms that long sentences have not made Americans safer.
Further, we know that people often “age out” of crime as they move through the course of their lives. For this reason, I am committed to exploring innovative policy solutions to address the nation’s over-incarceration crisis, such as caps on sentencing.

De La Fuente: Yes, I am working to put one together.

Klobuchar: Yes. As President, Senator Klobuchar will tackle the reality of mass incarceration by setting the ambitious goal of reducing the prison population by 20 percent over the next decade. Recent reforms enacted by states show that mass incarceration and crime are not linked. From 1999 to 2012, crime rates fell in New York and New Jersey faster than the national average even as they reduced their prison populations by close to 30 percent. To achieve this goal, Senator Klobuchar will continue her work to enact historic sentencing reforms, allow current non-violent, low-level drug offenders to petition for alternatives to incarceration, and put in place a clemency advisory board to significantly speed up and provide balance to the clemency process.

Sanders: Yes.

Today, the United States imprisons people at a higher rate than any other nation, in no small part due to extremely harsh sentencing policies and the War on Drugs. But mass incarceration has not made us any safer or reduced drug use and addiction. On the contrary, it has cost lives and diverted resources that could be used to prevent crime through social investment. Bernie has adopted the call of the ACLU to reduce the incarcerated population by half when he is in office.

We must end the War on Drugs that has disproportionately affected black and brown people.

The U.S. ranks highest in incarceration rates among Organization for Economic

Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries, twice as much as Turkey, which has the second-highest rate of incarceration.

Capital punishment has failed to reduce violent crime and is disproportionately apportioned to the poor and black and brown people. It has also cost innocent lives. According to the Equal Justice Initiative, for every nine people executed in this country since the reinstatement of capital punishment, one innocent person on death row has been identified and exonerated.

As president, Bernie will:

  • Abolish the death penalty.
  • Reverse the Trump administration’s guidance on the use of death penalty drugs with the goal of ending the death penalty at the state level.
  • Stop excessive sentencing with the goal of cutting the incarcerated population in half.
  • End mandatory sentencing minimums.
  • Reinstate a federal parole system and end truth-in-sentencing. People serving long sentences will undergo a “second look” process to make sure their sentence is still appropriate.
  • End “three strikes” laws. No one should spend their life behind bars for committing minor crimes, even if they commit several of them.
  • Invigorate and expand the compassionate release process so that people with disabilities, the sick and elderly are transitioned out of incarceration whenever possible.
  • Expand the use of sentencing alternatives, including community supervision and publicly funded halfway houses. This includes funding state-based pilot programs to establish alternatives to incarceration, including models based on restorative justice and free access to treatment and social services.
  • Revitalize the executive clemency process by creating an independent clemency board removed from the Department of Justice and placed in White House.
  • Stop the criminalization of homelessness and spend nearly $32 billion over five years to end homelessness. This includes doubling McKinney-Vento homelessness assistance grants to build permanent supportive housing, and $500 million to provide outreach to homeless people to help connect them to available services. In the first year of this plan, 25,000 Housing Trust Fund units will be prioritized for housing the homeless.

Steyer: Yes. America’s criminal justice system is defined by mass incarceration, punishment, and profiteering rather than prevention and rehabilitation. This approach has torn apart too many families and communities. The current system preys on poor people, perpetuates rampant racism, and costs billions in taxpayer dollars every year that could be better invested in the American people. It is time to transform our broken criminal justice system into one of restorative justice. As president, I will invest in our youth, end cash bail and the war on drugs, decriminalize marijuana and stop profiteering by the prison-industrial complex. He will work to reform our punitive criminal justice system into one that exemplifies our values of fairness, equality, opportunity, and second chances. Read more in my comprehensive ​plan​ to tackle mass incarceration.

Warren: Yes. I am committed to ending the mass incarceration crisis in our country. We can start by changing the way we think and talk about public safety in America — to focus on prevention rather than punishment. That means investing in evidence-based approaches that address the underlying drivers of violence and crime. I’ll invest the necessary resources to break the school to prison pipeline, to provide safe and affordable housing to keep people off of the street, and to fund violence interruption programs that divert people away from criminal activity before the police get involved. I’ll also invest in mental health and substance abuse services, so that people with mental health or substance abuse conditions receive treatment rather than jail time. Our system is the result of the dozens of choices we’ve made — choices that together stack the deck against the poor and the disadvantaged. Simply put, we have criminalized too many things. We send too many people to jail. We keep them there for too long. We do little to rehabilitate them. We spend billions, propping up an entire industry that profits from mass incarceration. And we do all of this despite little evidence that our harshly punitive system makes our communities safer — and knowing that a majority of people currently in prison will eventually return to our communities and our neighborhoods. Real reform requires examining every step of our criminal system. I’ll fight to repeal the bulk of the punitive 1994 crime bill, reduce mandatory minimums, and address the legacy of the War on Drugs — including by legalizing marijuana, erasing past convictions, and eliminating the disparity between crack and powder cocaine sentencing. I’ll fight to end the criminalization of poverty by eliminating cash bail, restricting fines and fees, and abolishing private prisons. We must reform how the law is enforced in America, because everyone is less safe when trust erodes between the police and the communities they serve. I’ll establish a federal standard for the use of force and then provide funding for the training necessary to meet that standard. I’ll also end racially discriminatory policies like stop-and-frisk and broken windows policing. To make sure that departments are adhering to these standards, I’ll increase governmental and civilian oversight — including by building up our use of pattern-or-practice investigations, investing in the responsible use of body cameras, and expanding the use of civilian oversight boards. I’ll roll back the immunities that shield officers and prosecutors who commit constitutional violations. We’ll also strengthen public defenders to ensure access to qualified counsel, rein in prosecutorial abuses, and repeal overly restrictive habeas rules to ensure everyone has access to justice. I’ll fight to improve conditions of incarceration, including by eliminating solitary confinement and investing in rehabilitative programming. I’ll establish a clemency board that reports directly to me at the White House, and I’ll use my pardon and clemency powers broadly to right systemic injustices. It is a false choice to suggest a tradeoff between public safety and mass incarceration. By spending our budgets not on expanded imprisonment but instead on community services that lift people up, we’ll decarcerate and make our communities safer. You can read my full plan for comprehensive criminal justice reform here: