The Huffington Post sent a list of questions on criminal justice to all of the major 2016 presidential candidates. Here are the full answers from Democratic contenders Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders.
1. In your view, should the primary goal of incarceration be rehabilitation or punishment?
Clinton: I believe there should be consequences for committing crimes, and I also believe that we are a nation of second chances and should strive to live up to that ideal. That means taking a rehabilitative approach to justice, particularly for children, including employing alternatives to incarceration where appropriate. It also means, for example, reforming mandatory minimum sentences so we are not sending people to prison longer than is necessary or useful. And for those who are given a second chance (and for the health and safety of the communities to which those individuals will return), we should ensure that those who suffer addiction or mental health problems receive proper treatment and that individuals have access to effective programs in prison to prepare them for success when they return home. Too often, the reentry pathway is littered with barriers, rather than paved with a fair opportunity for success.
Sanders: To my mind, it is essential that rehabilitation be the primary focus of incarceration in America. That’s not to say that rehabilitation should exclusively be the focus — certainly, those who commit crimes deserve to be punished. But through mandatory minimums, so-called truth-in-sentencing laws, and other misguided attempts to fight the disastrous War on Drugs, we have created a criminal justice system where the punishment often far exceeds the crime. We should be helping those who can serve their sentences and become productive members of society.
2. The United States makes up less than five percent of the world’s population, yet incarcerates nearly a quarter of the global prison population. In your view, are too many, too few, or about the right number of people incarcerated in the U.S.? What is the proper role of the federal government, in your view, in reducing incarceration levels?
Clinton: We need to end the era of mass incarceration in America. Too many people are going to prison for too long, and families are being torn apart. Billions of taxpayer dollars are being spent to keep nonviolent offenders in prison. Our criminal justice system is out of balance and, as President, I will work to implement meaningful criminal justice reform.
We need to address excessive federal mandatory minimum sentences that keep nonviolent drug offenders in prison for longer than is necessary and the racial disparities that exist in our criminal justice system. I will work to cut mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug offenses in half, apply the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 retroactively, eliminate the sentencing disparity for crack and powder cocaine, and reform the “strike” system to focus on violent crime.
We also must prioritize treatment and rehabilitation — rather than incarceration — for low-level, nonviolent drug offenders. Over half of state prison and local jail inmates suffer from a mental health problem, and up to 65 percent of the correctional population meets the medical criteria for a substance use disorder. I will ensure adequate training for law enforcement for crisis intervention and referral to treatment. I will also direct the attorney general to issue guidance to federal prosecutors on prioritizing rehabilitation and treatment over incarceration for people who commit low-level, nonviolent crimes and also suffer addiction or mental health problems.
In addition, I believe we should end the privatization of our prisons. We should not contract out this core responsibility of the federal government to private corporations. It creates private 2 industry incentives that may contribute — or have the appearance of contributing — to over-incarceration.
Sanders: Today in America, we have more people in jail than any other country on Earth — even more than China, an authoritarian country four times our size. This is unacceptable. The federal government should take the lead in facilitating a shift toward community policing, prevention and intervention before crime occurs, a greater focus on alternative sentencing, the removal of mandatory minimums, reinstating the federal parole system, and rehabilitation. The federal government should also provide more grants to agencies that are pursuing these goals and work with local departments that are falling short.
3. How do your religious views inform your approach to criminal justice?
Clinton: I am a person of faith. I am a Christian and a lifelong Methodist. My study of the Bible and my many conversations with people of faith have led me to believe that the most important commandment is to love the Lord with all your might, and to love your neighbor as yourself. My faith has informed my commitment to social justice and public service, as well as my belief that to the extent possible, our criminal justice system should take a rehabilitative approach to justice, particularly for children.
I support alternatives to incarceration for low-level, nonviolent offenders, and I believe we should invest in specialized drug courts and youth programs that work to the betterment of individuals and communities. I believe we should make a real commitment to reentry programs, so that individuals released from prison can have a new chance to succeed. And throughout my career, I have worked to remove barriers and create pathways to employment, housing, and health care for disadvantaged communities.
Sanders: Growing up in a Jewish family, the son of an immigrant from Poland, I have long known that politics matter. How government chooses to treat its citizens matters. And especially how government chooses to treat people who do not have power in society — minorities, the poor, and the sick, for starters.
4. Are there any specific experiences that you or anyone close to you have had that inform your views on criminal justice?
Clinton: The inequities that persist in our criminal justice system undermine the shared vision of what America can be and should be. I learned this firsthand as a young attorney just out of law school, working for the Children’s Defense Fund. One of my earliest assignments was to go to South Carolina to investigate the problem of youths being incarcerated in adult jails. And as director of the University of Arkansas School of Law’s legal aid clinic, advocating for prison inmates and low-income families, I saw how families can be torn apart by excessive incarceration and the toll it takes on children growing up in homes shattered by poverty and prison. Through my work, I came to see how our legal system can be stacked against those who have the least power and are the most vulnerable. These early experiences moved me to devote my career to advocating for children and families that are too often left behind and communities too long neglected.
Sanders: As a student organizer in the 1960s, I remember being harassed by the police simply for putting up flyers in a neighborhood. And the contrast between the police I faced in real life, and the local government I learned about in class, was striking.
5. Do you support policies that require felons to check a box on job applications, or prohibit them from voting or from living in or visiting certain areas?
Clinton: This year, the number of people released from state or federal prison will reach approximately 600,000. For those given a second chance, and for the health and safety of the communities to which those individuals return, the reentry pathway must not be littered with barriers, but rather paved with a fair opportunity for success. That is why, as President, I will take executive action to “ban the box” for federal employers and contractors, so that applicants have an opportunity to demonstrate their qualifications before being asked about their criminal records. As a Senator, I introduced legislation that would restore voting rights to individuals who have served their sentences, and as President, I would continue to support such legislation.
Sanders: We need to ban the box on job applications. If we truly believe that someone who has gone to prison and is released has paid their debt to society and has been rehabilitated, we should not create policies that make it harder for them to find a job. We also need to re-enfranchise the more than five million Americans who have had their right to vote taken away by a felony conviction, paid their debt to society, and deserve to have their rights restored. If released prisoners are deemed eligible to re-enter society, they should be able to live where they want, though some restrictions may be appropriate on a case-by-case basis to protect children. However, they should also receive comprehensive case management services to ensure they receive help readjusting to life outside of prison and get access to the services they may need to turn their life around.
6. Do you support a ban on solitary confinement? (For all adults? People under age 18 in adult or juvenile facilities? People with mental health issues?)
Clinton: President Obama recently announced a series of executive actions to end the use of solitary confinement for youth and low-level offenders in the federal prison system and to significantly reduce the use of the practice for adults. In an extensive report, the Department of Justice found that solitary confinement is overused and has the potential for devastating psychological consequences, especially for youth and individuals suffering from mental illness. I applaud President Obama for his action and for sharing the story of Kalief Browder, a young man who took his own life after spending nearly two years in solitary confinement. As President, I will ensure President Obama’s efforts are fully implemented. I will end the practice of placing youth in solitary confinement in the federal system, expand the Bureau of Prisons’ ability to divert inmates with serious mental illness to mental health treatment programs, and support the reduction of solitary confinement as a punitive measure.
Sanders: Solitary confinement is frequently misused. Far too often, people are thrown into solitary confinement as punishment, rather than for safety reasons. When solitary confinement is used, it should be used sparingly and only with access to appropriate mental health services. We cannot live in a society where people are thrown in a room the size of a closet and left by themselves for 23 hours a day for years at a time. Not only does this fail to provide any rehabilitative treatment, it exacerbates mental health issues and prompts new ones, often causing problems even after release from prison and perpetuating a cycle of imprisonment. Too often, prisons are treated as de facto mental health institutions. People with mental health issues should be put in the situation that offers the best chance of rehabilitation and recovery.
7. Do you support placing youth under 18 in adult prison facilities?
Clinton: As a young attorney just out of law school, I worked for the Children’s Defense Fund and one of my earliest assignments was investigating the problem of youths being incarcerated in adult jails in South Carolina. Many of the 14- and 15-year-olds I interviewed were in jail for minor transgressions. Some were in jail for serious offenses. But none should have been sharing cells with adults. Through my work, I came to see how our legal system can be — and all too often is — stacked against those who have the least power and who are the most vulnerable. I support keeping youth out of adult prisons, and as President, I will work with states to ensure they meet their requirements under the Prison Rape Elimination Act and the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act.
Sanders: No, children should be not in prisons with adults. The federal government should do everything within its power to keep children out of the criminal justice system in the first place, using evidence-based interventions to prevent and reduce juvenile crime while also providing social support. For those youth who do still break the law, we should focus on alternative sentencing rather than incarceration.
8. In your view, what are the primary reasons why the United States has seen historically low levels of violent crime in recent years?
Clinton: Researchers have found that there are many causes behind the decline of violent crime over recent decades, including social, economic, and environmental factors. And we also know that jurisdictions have experienced a decline in crime, even as they adopted community-policing approaches or reduced their prison populations. We should continue to invest in community-driven strategies that build on the foundations of success, including education, job training, and childcare, while at the same time focusing on reducing violent crime in places that are not experiencing steady decline and tackling the scourge of gun violence that plagues our communities.
Sanders: Mass incarceration has, at best, contributed to a tiny fraction of the drop in crime. Law enforcement has definitely played a role in reducing crime. However, we have also seen a long-term trend toward lower rates of violence for decades now, and there are likely too many interlocking reasons to determine which is the proximate cause.
9. Do you believe in the so-called “Ferguson effect”? If so, how do you define it?
Clinton: I agree with President Obama that we haven’t seen hard evidence of a so-called “Ferguson effect.” And I think we are ill-equipped to have the discussion because as a nation, we aren’t collecting the full data we need on crime and policing. We can do better in this regard, and it’s why I support collection and reporting of robust national data on policing to inform policing strategies and provide greater transparency and accountability. We need to work to rebuild trust between law enforcement and the communities they protect and serve. Our country’s law enforcement officers put their lives on the line every day to keep communities safe, and we need to support them and create conditions for their success. We also need to ensure accountability and transparency in law enforcement, to ensure that every member of the community benefits from fair and equal public safety. I believe that everyone in every community benefits when there is respect for the law, and when everyone in every community is respected by the law.
Sanders: There is absolutely no evidence to support the so-called Ferguson effect.
10. Do you believe that police departments generally hold their officers accountable for misconduct? Do you support civilian oversight?
Clinton: Our country’s law enforcement officers risk their lives every day to protect our communities. They deserve our respect, our support, and the best available training and technology to do their jobs safely and effectively. At the same time, the tragic deaths of Walter Scott, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, Sandra Bland, and other lives taken too soon reveal unmistakable truths about ongoing challenges we face in our criminal justice system.
I believe that effective policing and constitutional policing go hand-in-hand — we can and must do both. I support community-police collaboration in producing public safety and civilian oversight mechanisms. As President, I will also work to promote effective, accountable, constitutional policing by, for example, making new investments to support state-of-the-art law enforcement training programs on issues such as implicit bias, use of force, de-escalation, alternatives to incarceration, and officer safety and wellness; supporting legislation to ban racial profiling by federal, state, and local law enforcement officials; creating national guidelines for use of force; providing federal matching funds to make body cameras available to every police department in America; and working to collect and report robust national data on policing to inform policing strategies and provide greater transparency and accountability.
Sanders: Many police departments do attempt to hold their officers accountable. However, these efforts are far from sufficient, and you can see that any time you look at the news. Tasking prosecutors with investigating their colleagues is an untenable solution to this problem. In these cases, there is a clear and obvious conflict of interest. We need to increase civilian oversight of law enforcement. If a police officer breaks the law, like any public official, that officer must be held accountable.
11. The federal government gives local law enforcement millions of dollars in grants each year. Do you believe that law enforcement agencies should be required to meet certain standards in order to receive federal funds?
Clinton: I believe that any law enforcement agency that receives federal funding must ensure effective and constitutional policing, and that the federal government has a role to play in helping to achieve those goals. That is why I support, for example, making new investments in state-of the-art law enforcement training programs at every level; creating national guidelines for use of force; and working to collect and report national data on policing to inform policing strategies and provide greater transparency and accountability, including robust state and local data on issues such as crime, officer-involved shootings, and deaths in custody. Federal funding should help facilitate these kinds of reform efforts and ensure their success.
Sanders: Absolutely. Law enforcement agencies should be held accountable to the highest standards. Agencies that meet those high standards we set should receive incentives through grant funding; unfortunately, we have seen that when law enforcement agencies are not properly funded, they may turn to alternative revenue streams that can easily be abused, such as civil forfeiture. So while we should set standards for receipt of federal funds, we should work to ensure all police departments are properly funded. If departments cannot meet the federal standards, the federal government should work with them to identify and rectify deficiencies.
12. Do you support federal funding for police body cameras? Should all police officers be required to wear body cameras?
Clinton: I believe that every police department in the country should have access to body cameras to increase transparency and accountability on both sides of the lens. That is why as President, I will provide federal matching funds to make body cameras available to every police officer in America, and ensure appropriate standards and safeguards to ensure effectiveness and protection of civil liberties.
Sanders: All police officers should be required to wear body cameras. Further, the officers should have strict standards regarding camera use, governing when the cameras are active, how they are positioned, and how the data is handled and managed. By ensuring fair and equitable standards, body cameras can protect both civilians and law enforcement.
13. In your view, will body cameras have more of an impact on the behavior of police officers or the public?
Clinton: I believe that body cameras benefit both police officers and the public and, while not a panacea, can play a role in rebuilding trust between police officers and the public by increasing transparency and accountability. Cities across the country have successfully implemented body camera programs, and many more have plans to do so because body cameras work. Empirical studies have found that body cameras decrease citizen complaints against officers, use of force by police, and assaults on officers. Evidence also suggests that body-worn cameras can expedite the resolution of complaints and improve the evidentiary basis of arrests and prosecutions.
Sanders: If used correctly, body cameras will have an impact on both police officers and civilians. The increased transparency and accountability from body cameras should lead law enforcement to act more in line with their training and provide comfort from knowing that their interactions are recorded to show objective evidence of the situations they face. Civilians should also feel comfort from knowing that body cameras [are there], knowing that their interactions with law enforcement are being recorded and they can refer to the recordings if they have complaints or criticisms on the interaction.
14. Do you support the creation of a federal database that tracks all police-involved shootings?
Clinton: National data collection and reporting can help inform innovative policing strategies and foster greater transparency and accountability in law enforcement. However, there are currently gaps in the collection and analysis of policing data. For example, no federal agency tracks police-involved shootings. As President, I will increase the collection and reporting of national data on policing, including police-involved shootings and in-custody deaths, and will ensure that law enforcement agencies have appropriate funding and technical assistance to support these efforts.
Sanders: Absolutely. Further, the Department of Justice should investigate every incident where an individual is killed in police custody.
15. Do you agree with the limits that the Obama administration has placed on the distribution of surplus military equipment to law enforcement agencies? Should there be additional limits placed on the use of military equipment by law enforcement?
Clinton: Federal funds for state and local law enforcement should be used to bolster best practices, not to buy weapons of war that don’t belong on our streets. President Obama has taken important steps in this area to limit the transfer of military equipment and promote oversight and accountability in the use of controlled equipment. I support these efforts and, as President, will build on these steps by, for example, eliminating the one-year use requirement and requiring transparency by agencies that purchase equipment using federal funds.
Sanders: We need additional limits. Local police departments should not look like occupying armies. We need more of an emphasis on community policing and less on suppressing communities out of fear or dominance. Law enforcement should be active partners in the community, not feared or mistrusted by the people they are supposed to be serving.
16. Do you support or oppose legislation to reduce federal mandatory minimum sentences?
Clinton: We now have 2.4 million people in jails and prisons in this country — more than four times the number of those incarcerated [in] 1980. And these numbers reflect an explicit racial bias: it has been reported that nearly one in three black men could expect to go to prison in their lifetime.
I believe our criminal justice system is out of balance. Excessive federal mandatory minimum sentences keep nonviolent drug offenders in prison for longer than is necessary or useful, and have increased racial inequality in our criminal justice system. I have been encouraged to see changes that I supported as Senator to reduce the unjust federal sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine crimes finally become law, and to see the Sentencing Commission reduce recommended prison terms for some drug crimes. President Obama, former Attorney General Eric Holder, and Attorney General Loretta Lynch have led the way with important additional steps.
As President, I will fight to reform mandatory minimum sentences, including cutting mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug offenses in half. I will apply the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 retroactively, allowing current nonviolent prisoners to seek fairer sentences. I will also eliminate the sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine so that equal amounts of crack carry equal sentences to cocaine, and will apply this change retroactively. I will reform the “strike” system, and I will give judges more discretion in applying mandatory minimum sentences by expanding the judicial “safety valve” to a larger set of cases. And I would call on states to follow suit and make similar reforms to their sentencing laws.
Sanders: I support getting rid of mandatory minimums, and I have introduced legislation to reinstate the federal parole process, moving back to a system where people receive maximum sentences and are eligible for parole based on behavior. Federal mandatory minimum sentences are one of the policies that have led to the explosion of the prison population. We must ensure that prison sentences are not excessive and match the nature of the crime.
17. Would you expand the size of the section of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division that focuses on investigating patterns of constitutional abuses in local police departments?
Clinton: The Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division “pattern or practice” unit does important work in ensuring constitutional policing, but the unit has only 50 lawyers and the work involved in an investigation can take thousands of hours. We should give the Civil Rights Division the resources it needs to ensure effective, accountable, and constitutional policing.
That is why I have called for expanding and strengthening the U.S. Department of Justice’s pattern or practice unit by increasing resources, working to secure subpoena power, and improving data collection for pattern or practice investigations. I also believe we should double funding for the U.S. Department of Justice “Collaborative Reform” program to provide technical assistance and training to agencies that undertake voluntary efforts toward transformational reform of their police departments. Across the country, there are police departments deploying creative and effective strategies that we can learn from and build on.
Sanders: Yes, the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division should be empowered to investigate abuses in local police departments. Transparency and accountability are essential for the relationship between law enforcement and the community. Uncovering abuses in criminal justice is essential for ensuring law enforcement serves the community in a fair and equitable way.
18. Should the federal government incentivize police departments to diversify their police forces to make them more closely reflect the communities they serve?
Clinton: I believe having diverse voices and experiences at all levels of government is critically important. This includes working to increase diversity in our police departments so they’re more reflective of the communities they serve. The federal government has a role to play in supporting and incentivizing police departments to diversify their personnel. And we can learn from and build on strategies in police departments that have made progress on this front, as well as the efforts of states like Connecticut, which recently enacted a law requiring law enforcement agencies to develop and implement guidelines to recruit more police officers of color.
Sanders: Police forces should absolutely reflect the communities they serve. Increasing diversity would prove to be a benefit to the agencies. More diverse police forces will help restore trust in the police and build a sense of partnership with communities. Importantly, diversity must include all identities, with an increased focus on diversity in recruitment and retention of law enforcement in terms of race, ethnicity, gender, and religion, among others.
19. FBI Director James Comey has stated that law enforcement has historically been “brutally unfair to disfavored groups,” that law enforcement has been involved in the poor treatment of people of color in the not-so-distant past, and that police officers can sometimes get into the habit of taking “lazy mental shortcuts” about the individuals they encounter. Do you agree with those statements?
Clinton: All over America, there are police officers inspiring trust and confidence, honorably doing their duty, and putting their lives on the line to protect our communities. And there are law enforcement agencies deploying creative and effective policing strategies to rebuild the bonds of trust between officers and the residents they serve, and demonstrating that it is possible to protect public safety without relying on unnecessary force. We should learn from those examples and build on what works.
At the same time, we must face hard truths about race and justice in America. We have to grapple as a country with broader questions about ensuring that all our citizens and communities are protected and respected. I have met with mothers who have lost their children and heard their stories. Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Sandra Bland, and others. The loss of so many African Americans taken too soon should reaffirm our commitment to press forward for progress. As President, I am committed to working with communities and law enforcement to rebuild trust and enact meaningful reforms that can be felt on our streets.
Sanders: Police officers undoubtedly have very difficult jobs. We must remember that, like everyone else, police officers are human. This means that they are subject to the same biases and behaviors as everyone else, but unlike most other workers, they may be called upon to make a life-or-death decision in a matter of seconds. So we must do a better job recruiting and training law enforcement officers, addressing discrimination that could occur as a result of the officers’ conscious or unconscious processes.
20. How much of a role do you believe that racial discrimination and inequality plays in the criminal justice system today?
Clinton: Consider this: What if almost 1 in 3 white men were expected to go to prison at some point in their lifetimes? What if guns were the leading cause of death for young white men? What if, in America, white families had a fraction of the wealth of black families? We wouldn’t stand for it.
There is something profoundly wrong when African-American men are still far more likely to be stopped and searched by police, charged with crimes, and sentenced to longer prison terms. When an estimated 1.5 million black men are missing from their families and communities because of incarceration and premature death. And such racial inequalities are not merely a symptom of economic inequality. Black people across America still experience racism every day, whether intentional or implicit bias. That’s the reality in the African-American community — and we shouldn’t stand for it.
Since this campaign started, I’ve been talking about the work we must do to not only address the systemic inequities that persist in our criminal justice system, but also in education, in economic opportunity, in our environment. But we have to do more than talk — we have to take action.
I believe we need to make a new and comprehensive commitment to equity and opportunity for communities of color, particularly the African-American community. That means making major new investments to create good-paying jobs and increase economic opportunity, ending mass incarceration, ensuring equal pay for women, ending redlining in housing, strengthening access to credit, promoting entrepreneurship and making it easier to start and grow a business, replacing the school-to-prison pipeline with a cradle-to-college pipeline, and so much more. I’ve been working on these issues throughout my life, and I will continue to fight for real solutions as President.
Sanders: Race plays a role in every aspect of criminal justice. People of color are more likely to be stopped by police, arrested, receive a prison sentence, receive a disproportionately longer sentence, and receive more punitive treatment in the prison system compared with white people. Discrimination in the law enforcement and judicial systems must be addressed at every level. Importantly, to my mind, we must remember that race can also play a very different role in criminal justice depending on a person’s other characteristics, such as gender identity or sexual orientation.
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