Opinion: Sanders has the right plan for criminal-justice reform

The Vermont senator’s approach to change focuses on the root causes of the system’s problems.


Hannah Kinson

Bernie Sanders addresses the crowd during the Bernie 2020 College Campus Tailgate Tour on Sunday, September 8, 2019 at The Old Capitol Building.

Peyton Downing, Columnist

With the third Democratic presidential-nomination debate set to air on Thursday, it is important to familiarize ourselves with the policies that these candidates tout in their platforms — especially as residents of the first-in-the-nation caucus state.

There are many issues to care about, but one that often gets overlooked is criminal-justice reform. It’s vital for presidential hopefuls to have plans for several criminal-justice issues — such as policing, overcrowded prisons, and other broader factors that contribute to crime — and the candidate who addresses these issues best is Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt.

These criminal-justice issues are present across the United States, including Iowa. The prison population of the Hawkeye State has tripled since 1980, leading to widespread overcrowding, according to an article published by the Des Moines Register. This overcrowding leads to negative health outcomes for inmates and causes undue stress for staff. State lawmakers have taken notice of such issues. 

In the same Register article, Iowa House Rep. Ako Abdul-Samad, D-Des Moines, said, “Iowa could take a leadership role and we have not. That is something that is criminal in itself.”

While most candidates have released their own criminal-justice platforms, I believe that Sanders has set the standard that the Democrats may use to examine other candidates’ proposals.

One part of Sanders’ plan calls for the creation of civilian-oversight agencies for the police. According to the Sanders campaign website, these agencies would oversee the storage and release of police body camera videos to ensure that there is no tampering of evidence in the case of suits brought against officers. This allows for a more just system of holding police officers accountable when incidents occur.

A second part of Sanders’ plan proposes cutting down on prison overpopulation through multiple means, namely the federal legalization of marijuana. In addition to legalizing its use, Sanders would also expunge and vacate past marijuana convictions. This would allow those who are currently incarcerated to be released from jail without criminal records unless they have other convictions related to marijuana. This will be a strong start to correcting the damage done by the war on drugs.

Sanders’ plan to improve communities across the country targets the root causes of problems in our criminal-justice system.

The last part of the platform that I would like to point out is educational reform. It may seem that education and criminal justice are unrelated. However, crime doesn’t happen in a vacuum; it is the result of many environmental factors, including education. By focusing on building up K-12 education and giving people the tools necessary to succeed, it decreases the necessity of resorting to crime.

Of course, Sanders isn’t the only presidential hopeful talking about criminal-justice reform, but others focus on fixing the symptoms of crime, such as gun control or drug legalization. While he also addresses those issues, Sanders’ plan to improve communities across the country targets the root causes of problems in our criminal-justice system.

Even if Sanders is elected president and these policies are adopted, the problems the U.S. faces with its criminal justice system would not be instantly and completely solved. These reforms would only affect the federal law; it is up to the states to correct these issues as well, though the U.S. Justice Department can do its best to encourage states to pass certain policies.

We have to begin somewhere, and Sanders’ plans for reform are the strongest foundation for a more just America.

Columns reflect the opinions of the authors and are not necessarily those of the Editorial Board, The Daily Iowan, or other organizations in which the author may be involved.