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Warren on Criminal Justice Reform

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This is really good stuff:

Warren’s plan is sweeping, covering not just the well-known concerns about incarceration that criminal justice reformers have raised but also the criticisms that America doesn’t do enough to stop crime and violence from festering on the front end.

It includes many of the policies that have become mainstays in Democratic criminal justice reform plans. She targets long prison sentences, mandatory minimums, cash bail, and drug policies focused on incarceration over addiction treatment. She argues more broadly against criminalizing homelessness, poverty, and mental health problems. She also calls for repealing the 1994 crime law, which has become a bogeyman for mass incarceration among progressives (in large part because Democrats, particularly Biden, supported it when it passed).

She lists several other policy ideas aimed at reducing incarceration and making the overall criminal justice system less punitive: establishing a clemency board to release more people from prison early, decriminalizing marijuana at the federal level, raising the age of criminal liability to 18, restricting civil forfeiture, boosting resources for public defenders, ending the death penalty, increasing oversight of police, eliminating solitary confinement, banning private prisons, and getting rid of fees for phone calls and bank transfers in prison, among other proposals.

Warren also promises to use the federal government’s funding powers to get states to reduce incarceration and reform their criminal justice systems. This is key to reducing incarceration: About 88 percent of people in prison are held at the state level, while 12 percent are at the federal level. (And, crucially, while about half of federal prisoners are in for drug offenses, the majority of state prisoners are in for violent crimes.)

Warren does include a few exceptions in her push to decarcerate, particularly executives whose companies are linked to crimes, including financial institutions and opioid painkiller makers.

Warren also focuses much of her plan on essentially preventing the need for prison — by taking steps to prevent crime and violence in the first place. She would encourage more targeted police strategies, such as “focused deterrence,” that focus on the few people at risk for violence and crime. She points to her gun violence plan, which promises stronger gun laws. She would dedicate more resources to schools with the goal of keeping children in school and engaged. She cites several ideas to address problems that can contribute to higher crime, from mental health issues to drug addiction to unaffordable housing.

In addition to the 1994 crime bill, she’s also going after the worst aspects of the even worse 1996 bill:

Expand access to justice for people wrongfully imprisoned. Defendants who are wrongfully imprisoned have the right to challenge their detention in court through a procedure known as habeas corpus. The Framers believed this right was so important to achieving justice that they guaranteed it specifically in the Constitution. It’s particularly important for minority defendants — Black Americans, for example, make up only 13% of the population but a plurality of wrongful convictions. In 1996, at the height of harsh federal policies that drove mass incarceration, Congress made it absurdly difficult for wrongfully imprisoned individuals to bring these cases in federal court. Since then, conservative Supreme Court Justices have built on those restrictions — making it nearly impossible for defendants to receive habeas relief even when they have actual proof of innocence. We should repeal these overly restrictive habeas rules, make it harder for courts to dismiss these claims on procedural technicalities, and make it easier to apply new rules that emerge from these cases to people who were wrongfully imprisoned before those rules came into effect.

This is all very worthwhile, and a major sea change.

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