Bernie Sanders on Criminal Justice

Bernie Sanders believes that the United States squanders far too many resources on over-incarceration and misguided crime policies, and that this money could be better spent providing education, training, and jobs to those who might otherwise get lost in the criminal justice system. Bernie also advocates for police reform through increased transparency and accountability, as well as the demilitarization of America’s police forces.

Mass Incarceration

Bernie believes that America squanders far too many resources on over-incarceration and a misguided crime policy — and that this money could be better spent providing jobs and education to those who might otherwise get lost in the criminal justice system. Moreover, Bernie is deeply concerned by how our broken criminal justice system disproportionately targets people of color and the poor.

Start from the beginning. How many people are incarcerated in America?

The U.S. prison population is over 2.3 million. While the United States accounts for only five percent of the world’s population, we are home to 25 percent of the global prison population. Including those subject to parole and probation, one in every 31 American adults is under some sort of correctional control.

In fact, we have more people behind bars than any other country in the world, a fact Bernie calls an “international embarrassment”—


The interesting thing is, America hasn’t always been like this. Here’s how much our incarceration rate has spiked domestically over the last century:


Wow, that’s quite an increase. Tell me more about how mass incarceration affects people of color.

The majority of the U.S. prison population is male and under the age of 40, and a disproportionate amount of them are people of color. Young black males are six times more likely to be arrested than young white males. Of black men aged 20–34 without a high school degree, 37 percent are incarcerated, while only 26 percent are in the workforce.

The hard data speaks volumes — incarceration rates among both blacks and Latinos have risen much faster than for whites:


According to a 2013 report by the Sentencing Project, a research and advocacy group, one out of three black men can expect to go to prison in his lifetime, compared to one out of 17 white men. And specifically, this graph shows how blacks are disproportionately arrested for drug crimes:


This video highlights the racial bias in the American criminal justice system:

How much does mass incarceration cost us?

A lot:


Is the massive investment worth it? Does going to prison reform people and reduce crime?

Regarding reforming people, the answer is no. In fact, incarceration aggravates the situation. Young people who go to jail or juvenile detention centers have decreased literacy rates, can expect lower grades, drop out of school at a higher rate, and end up committing more crime. Beyond suffering from limited access to education or safe conditions while in prison, having a criminal record makes it harder to get a job — particularly for blacks:


And with regards to reducing crime, the answer is also no. Within five years of release, 76.6 percent of released prisoners are rearrested.

A 2014 National Research Council report — which studied years of evidence of crime trends, causes of rising prison populations, and consequences of imprisonment — concluded that nearly every aspect of our country’s “historically unprecedented and internationally unique” rise in incarceration since the 1970s has not been worth the benefit in crime reduction. Indeed, the report recommended that the U.S. revise its current sentencing laws (particularly with regards to drug enforcement) and cut back prison rates.

(As if all of the above weren’t bad enough, going to prison means you can lose the right to vote! Due to state laws that restrict convicted felons from voting, one out of 13 black Americans is disenfranchised, meaning their voices are lost in the democratic process. Learn more about Bernie’s stance on felony disenfranchisement here.)


So mass incarceration isn’t working. Does Bernie agree?

Definitely. Bernie has been a long-time critic of our justice system’s over-reliance on incarceration as an answer to lower crime rates. Even in 1991, Bernie spoke against what he saw as a, “so-called crime prevention bill… let’s be honest, this is not a crime prevention bill this is a punishment bill”—

Tell me more about this “crime prevention bill”.

There were several “crime bills” proposed in the early 1990s. The 1991 bill that Bernie is talking about in the above video was an earlier version of the bill that was eventually signed into law. Introduced by Sen. Joe Biden (D-DE) and signed by President Bill Clinton, The Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 (commonly referred to as “the Crime Bill”) was the largest crime bill in U.S. history providing for almost $10 billion in funding for prisons and $6 billion for crime prevention programs, among many other controversial provisions such as mandatory minimum sentencing and bans on certain assault weapons.

Did the bill work to reduce crime?

As mentioned above, most studies find that “tough on crime” laws only slightly decrease crime rates at the expense of devastating low-income communities of color. The National Academy of Sciences published an impressive, comprehensive study on the effects of increased incarceration on crime rates. They found “only a modest relationship between incarceration and lower crime rates.” For more info on the effects of mass incarceration, see above.

What did Bernie have to say about the bill at the time?

As seen in the above video, Bernie denounced an earlier version of the bill as “a punishment bill, a retribution bill, a vengeance bill.” He has always maintained that instead of putting our money into prisons, we should attack the root of crime by investing more in education and economic development. For more on this, see below.

If you have a few minutes, check out Bernie discussing the bill just months before voting on it:


If Bernie was so against this bill, why did he vote for it?

Bernie admitted that “this is not a perfect bill”, but he understood that certain parts of the bill were tremendously important. In particular, Bernie was passionate about passing the Violence Against Women Act, one of the key provisions of the Crime Bill. Bernie said at the time, “I have a number of serious problems with the Crime Bill, but one part of it that I vigorously support is the Violence Against Women Act. We urgently need the $1.8 billion in this bill to combat the epidemic of violence against women on the streets and in the homes of America.”

Listen to Bernie explain the importance of this provision as the reason for his support of the Crime Bill:

Got it. What else has Bernie said about mass incarceration?

More recently, Bernie has highlighted the “unspeakable tragedy” that, if recent trends continue, one in three black males born in this country can expect at some point in their lives to spend time in prison or jail.

Bernie ties criminal activity to lack of economic opportunities, and research shows that people behind bars are more likely to be young people of color who haven’t had access to good education or work training. As Bernie stated in a June 2015 Senate address:

“It is no great secret that, without work, without education, without hope, people get into trouble… the result is that, tragically, in America today we have more people in jail than any other country in the world.”

So what does Bernie propose we do about all this?

Bernie supports alternative sentencing in cases of non-violent drug crimes and objects to the current mandatory minimums for non-violent offenses. In 2000, he voted yes on an appropriations bill that supported alternative sentences in terms of rehabilitation programs. A 2012 National Criminal Justice Reference Service study reported that programs like these can have positive outcomes when it comes to reducing prison populations and providing effective drug treatment.

Generally speaking, Bernie sees the “war on drugs” as costly and destructive, and acknowledges that current drug laws have been futile. See, for example, the rising rates of heroin use. Bernie believes treatment, not punishment, is the answer. (Learn more at the Drug Policy issue page.)

Bernie also supports the COPS Program, which has increased the number of police officers in high-crime areas and has been shown to consistently reduce violent crime. Further, Bernie has argued that focusing on the economic roots of crime is a far more cost-effective and humane approach to crime reduction.

Most importantly, Bernie emphasizes that our nation’s youth, particularly in the black communities, are caught in an economic crisis. Because half of all black males will be arrested by the age of 23 and youth unemployment is so high, he advocates for focusing on early intervention in order to empower productive citizens rather than produce young criminals.

Lowering the staggeringly high incarceration rates for undereducated and underemployed youths requires providing meaningful economic opportunities. Bernie believes we need “jobs, not jails.”

To this end, he has proposed a massive bill that would put millions of Americans to work on rebuilding America’s crumbling infrastructure, another to provide job training for at-risk youths, and yet another that would raise the minimum wage — currently at $7.25 per hour, which he calls a “starvation wage” — to $15. (Learn more at the Youth Employment, Minimum Wage and Racial Wage Gap issue pages.)

Moreover, Bernie wants to increase access to education and job training, so that less youth — of color and otherwise — are pushed through the school-to-prison pipeline. In fact, America has over-invested in prisons to the point that there are more prisons than colleges in the country. To this end, Bernie’s also introduced the Free College For All Act, which aims to make all public colleges and universities tuition-free, so that everyone can afford a higher education. (Learn more at the Education and Racial Justice issue pages.)

Police Reform

American police tactics, particularly in urban areas, are excessively violent and disproportionately affect people of color, as Bernie discusses in this May 2015 speech:

What’s the scope of the problem?

In the last year, police brutality and violence has been a source of national debate. We’ve struggled as a nation to make sense of videos capturing police killings of unarmed people of color like Eric Garner, Tamir RiceWalter Scott, Sandra Bland, and many, many, more. Mass media brought attention to this issue after the murder of Michael Brown, initiating the creation of the Black Lives Matter movement. Who can forget the chilling images of the Ferguson, Mo. police preparing for civilian protests by donning military gear and rolling through the streets in tanks?


As of September 20, 2015, more than 860 people have been killed by American police. That is more than twice the highest number of police shootings ever reported by the FBI for an entire year. Of the first 168 killings this year, only two resulted in officers being charged with crimes. And in 2010 alone, almost $350 million was spent on civil judgments and settlements related to police misconduct.

What are the hard numbers behind how police violence disproportionately affects people of color?

While black people make up only 13 percent of the population, they account for 31 percent of all victims killed by police. Blacks make up nearly 40 percent of unarmed individuals killed by police with a gun and 42 percent of unarmed individuals that are killed by police by means other than a gun.

Sobering FBI data shows that black teenagers are 21 times more likely than white teenagers to be killed by police:


And remember that statistics on police shootings are self-reported, so this data probably underestimates this depressing state of affairs.

Where’s Bernie on all this?

Bernie has strongly decried police brutality. In a July 2015 speech to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), a primarily black civil rights organization once led by Martin Luther King, Jr. that traces its roots to the Montgomery bus boycott, Bernie addressed police violence against people of color:

“Too many African-Americans today are simultaneously having to deal the crisis of racial justice while coping with the effects of poverty and economic deprivation, such as drugs, crime, and despair.

… As Martin Luther King, Jr., said; Law and order exist for the purpose of establishing justice and when they fail in this purpose they become the dangerously structured dams that block the flow of social progress.

Across the nation, too many African-Americans and other minorities find themselves subjected to a system that treats citizens who have not committed crimes like criminals. A growing number of communities do not trust the police and police have become disconnected from the communities they are sworn to protect.

Sandra Bland, Michael Brown, Rekia Boyd, Eric Garner, Walter Scott, Freddie Gray, Tamir Rice. We know their names. Each of them died unarmed at the hands of police officers or in police custody. The chants are growing louder. People are angry. I am angry. And people have a right to be angry. Violence and brutality of any kind, particularly at the hands of law enforcement sworn to protect and serve our communities, is unacceptable and must not be tolerated.

We must reform our criminal justice system. Black lives do matter. And we must value black lives.”

Bernie doesn’t see these incidents as isolated events or reflective of recent developments, stating: “Anyone who thinks this has not been going on decade after decade would be very wrong.”

He’s fighting for a vision of America where a “young black man or woman can walk down the street without worrying about being falsely arrested, beaten or killed.”

What does Bernie propose we do to deter police misconduct?

Bernie has spoken very strongly on the urgent need for police accountability. In particular, Bernie focuses on demilitarizing the police, believing that all the money we put into heavy equipment and arms should instead be put toward jobs and education.

Bernie is a proponent of police body cameras to discourage, detect, and eliminate misconduct, and supports increasing federal funds to municipalities that implement them.

He also supports community policing, which “stresses interaction over reaction, de-escalation over brute force, and that police should have a stake in the communities they serve.” The question, as Bernie identifies it, is, “How do you have police departments in this country that are part of their communities, not oppressors in their communities?”

For more detailed information, check out the Physical Violence section of the racial justice plan Bernie released on August 10th, 2015.

Prison Reform

America’s current profit-driven prison system is unjust and ineffective. Bernie wants to dismantle the prison industrial complex and limit federal tax breaks to private prisons. Additionally, he believes those incarcerated should be rehabilitated through education and job training to prepare them for success upon release and to reduce recidivism rates.

Why is the prison system itself a problem?

The U.S. prison population has risen 790 percent since 1980. Incarceration in private prisons shot up 37 percent between 2002 and 2009 alone. Privatized prisons do little to benefit their local communities, despite their promises. Also, many of these facilities fail to comply with state laws and maintain “abysmal conditions” for their prisoners.

Moreover, prison doesn’t rehabilitate. Studies from the Bureau of Justice Statistics find that released prisoners are very likely to get rearrested:

  • Within three years, about two-thirds of released prisoners were rearrested
  • Within five years, about three-quarters were rearrested
  • Of those rearrested, more than half were arrested by the end of the first year
  • Specifically, 82.1 percent of property offenders, 76.9 percent of drug offenders, 73.6 percent of public order offenders, and 71.3 percent of violent offenders were rearrested

So what would Bernie do to reform the prison system?

First of all, Bernie opposes the privatization of prisons, saying:

“We need to end prisons for profit, which result in an over-incentive to arrest, jail, and detain, in order to keep prison beds full.”

He’s asked the White House to take executive action to close a tax loophole that allows private prisons to avoid paying corporate income taxes. Bernie also recently introduced the Justice is Not For Sale Act of 2015, which would ban private prisons entirely. The bill would also bring back the federal parole system to help reduce the proliferation of mass incarceration, and remove the inhumane quota for the number of undocumented immigrants held in detention.

Bernie also seeks to keep nonviolent offenders out of prison with alternative sentencing, which is a fancy term for rehabilitation and community service programs. He wants to eliminate mandatory minimum sentencing, which is one of the primary drivers behind the dramatic increase of nonviolent drug offenders in the prison population. That’s why he also wants to reform U.S. drug policy. (Learn more at the Drug Policy issue page, and in the Mass Incarceration section above.)

However, given that some people will still have to face time in jail, their time behind bars should enable their rehabilitation. Bernie was one of the few members of Congress to oppose cutting off prisoners from the Pell Grant program, which gave them access to higher education and had been shown to dramatically reduce recidivism. Were he president, Bernie would make education more accessible to the incarcerated:

“We do not do a good job of reintegrating those people into society. The result is an enormous amount of pain, human destruction, and a great deal of expense to the American taxpayer.”

Finally, Bernie is acutely aware of the interrelation between crime and economic opportunity. For this reason, he would focus on creating jobs and job training for America’s youth, as well as fund a system of free public college tuition. For more information, check out the Education, Youth Employment, and Economy pages.

Capital Punishment

Bernie opposes the death penalty, and has voted for legislation favoring life imprisonment over capital punishment.

What’s the state of the death penalty in America?

While over two-thirds of countries have abolished capital punishment, the U.S. has not. The majority of all executions take place in five nations — China, Iran, North Korea, Yemen, and the United States.

A 2012 Amnesty International report stated a variety of issues related to the death penalty in America, including racial bias, arbitrary use, disregard for mental illness, high fiscal costs, non-deterrence of violent crime, and the claiming of innocent lives due to wrongful convictions.

How do most Americans feel about it?

Support for capital punishment is at historic lows, with 56 percent of Americans supporting it, but huge drops being reported among specific demographics. For instance, while 71 percent of Democrats supported it in 1996, only 40 percent do now. Furthermore, between 2011 and 2015, there was a 10-point drop among women, 8-point drop among people under 30, and 7-point drop among conservative Republicans.

Americans oppose the death penalty for people with mental illness by a 2-to-1 margin, and a majority — 52 percent — support life in prison over capital punishment.

Where does Bernie stand on the death penalty?

Bernie, meanwhile, categorically opposes capital punishment. He’s said:

“There are people who commit horrendous, horrendous, horrendous crimes… and we are furious at them, we can’t understand their barbarity. But I think with so much violence in the world today, I just don’t think the state itself… should be in the business of killing people. So when you have people who have done terrible, terrible things, they’re going to spend the rest of their lives in jail and that’s a pretty harsh punishment.”

So what actions has Bernie taken to reduce the use of capital punishment?

In 1991, he called for the end of “state murder” in a House of Representatives address:

In 1994, Bernie voted for an amendment to the Crime Bill that would replace the death penalty with life imprisonment. In 1998, he voted in favor of a bill that required life imprisonment over capital punishment in any case where the defendant’s guilt is uncertain.

Violent Crime

The U.S. is still one of the most violent countries in the world, with a murder rate almost five times that of other industrialized countries. Bernie advocates sensible gun control, better policing programs, and more funding to address domestic and sexual violence.

Tell me more about our violent crime rates.

While no European or Asian cities rank among the world’s top 50 most violent, the U.S. boasts five. Moreover, cities like Baltimore, Md., St. Louis, Mo., Detroit, Mich., and Oakland, Ca. deal with murder rates five to ten times the national average.


On gun crime, specifically, national FBI data from 2011 shows that firearms were used in 68 percent of murders, 41 percent of robberies, and 21 percent of aggravated assaults — and that most homicides in the U.S. are committed with firearms.

Domestic violence is also a big issue in America, accounting for 15 percent of all violent crime. Additionally, one in five women (and one in 71 men) in the U.S. have been raped. Almost half of victims of either gender are raped by an acquaintance, and almost 45.4 percent of female rape victims and 29 percent of male rape victims were raped by an intimate partner.

Where does Bernie stand on gun crime?

Bernie has voted in favor of requiring background checks to prevent firearms from getting into the hands of felons and the mentally ill, passing a federal ban on semi-automatic weapons, and closing loopholes that allows private sellers at gun shows and on the internet to sell to individuals without background checks. Bernie has also voted in favor of a national instant background check system.

But he doesn’t believe gun control will solve all our problems. Bernie believes that we have a crisis in addressing mental health issues in this country, saying in a recent interview:

“We need strong sensible gun control, and I will support it. But some people think it’s going to solve all of our problems, and it’s not. You know what, we have a crisis in the capability of addressing mental health illness in this country. When people are hurting and are prepared to do something terrible, we need to do something immediately. We don’t have that and we should have that.”

Given many perpetrators of mass shootings have been found to suffer from mental health issues, Bernie believes that expanding access to mental health care can address some of the root causes of gun-related violent crime.

Learn more about Bernie’s stances on mental health care access here and on guns at the Gun Policy issue page.

And how about his record and policies on domestic and sexual violence?

Bernie believes that the rates of sexual and domestic violence against women — and men — is too high, and that “much more has to be done.”

Bernie voted in August of 1994 to authorize the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), which authorized $1.6 billion towards investigating and prosecuting domestic and sexual violence, and created the Office on Violence Against Women. Since the VAWA was enacted in 1994, incidents of domestic violence against women have dropped more than 50 percent.

In 2012, Bernie co-sponsored the Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act of 2013, a bill that renewed the provisions of the previous VAWA and included additional provisions to protect LGBT victims, expand access to justice for victims on Native American reservations, and extend protection for immigrant victims.

What about men? They suffer from abuse, too!

It’s absolutely true that men are victims of domestic violence, and Bernie supports all victims of domestic violence. Although the title of VAWA includes only “women” in its title, the operative text is gender-neutral and applies to men and women, including transgender people.