After over two months as an announced presidential candidate, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT.) has for the first time come out for substantive sentencing reforms. In an interview with MSNBC on Wednesday, Sanders said “We need to take a look at mandatory minimum sentences, we have to take a whole new look, I think, at our drug policy.”
Sanders has spoken frequently about the need for policing reforms, including more community policing programs, demilitarizing local police forces, holding law-breaking cops accountable, and providing more police training. But until now, Sanders has remained silent on reforming our inane sentencing policies, which have played an equally important role in ballooning the incarcerated population and criminalizing blackness.
Sanders became more vocal this week about institutionalized racism and the Black Lives Matter movement, after he was heckled by activists at Netroots Nation during a Q&A on immigration reform. At the event, Sanders largely ignored the chants of protesters, instead giving his usual talking points on economic inequality.
He was unequivocally clear on Wednesday: “We have more people in jail than any other country on earth. Millions of lives have been destroyed because people are in jail for nonviolent crimes… The number of African-Americans and Hispanics who are in jails is disproportionately high.”
Sanders also referenced Sandra Bland as the latest instance of police brutality. Bland was violently arrested after refusing to put out her cigarette and was found dead in jail three days later due to an apparent suicide.
“What you saw is an aggressive, overactive police officer who dragged this woman out of her car, assaulted her, sent her to jail for what crime? A minor traffic violation,” Sanders said. “That happens all over this country, and it especially happens to people of color....We need to figure out a way in terms of how we treat African-Americans so that young people can walk down the street without having to worry about whether they are going to be harassed or shot in the back."
While Sanders has surged in popularity among the Democratic electorate, this surge has not been even. A recent PPP poll shows Sanders with a 50% favorability rating among white Democrats, but only a 21% favorability rating among African American Democrats. When asked who Democrats support for president, only 6% of African Americans vs. 27% of whites picked Sanders.
Sanders’ remarks come a week after President Obama highlighted the need for criminal justice reforms in a speech to the NAACP. They also come at a time when such reforms are attracting bipartisan support, and congressional action appears likely.