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Criminal justice reform can't only enact neutral policies. It must reverse years of racist ones.

"Justice for all" has to really mean for all. My plan to transform our system will help heal the injustices built into the process and the institutions.
Image: Democratic 2020 U.S. presidential candidate Buttigieg speaks in Durham
South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg speaks at campaign town hall meeting at the University of New Hampshire in Durham, N.H. on Oct. 25, 2019.Brian Snyder / Reuters

Whether it’s in a courtroom that doesn’t provide adequate defense or a classroom where minor infractions yield major punishments, Black people are still marked by a criminal justice system that was built against them.

In 2006, for instance, Cyntoia Brown was sentenced to 51 years to life in prison after fighting off a man she believed would kill her. It didn’t matter that she had been sex trafficked; it didn’t matter that she was only 16. The decision to treat girls like Cyntoia as hardened criminals beyond redemption was made a long time ago — and it pervades our society.

The United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world, and Black communities have shouldered the burden. While the youth incarceration rate has dropped, the gap between Black and white youth incarceration has widened. Despite equal rates of use, Black people are nearly four times more likely to be arrested for marijuana than white people. And legal fees disproportionately target Black communities, often resulting in arrest only for failure to pay.

The sources of these disparities are not incidental, but intentional. They are a product of decades of racist policies, most within living memory. Thus, replacing those policies with neutral ones just isn’t going to cut it. Injustice does not heal, it compounds.

That is why I’m proposing a bold approach to reverse these wrongs in our criminal legal system and ensure justice that truly is for all.

Our plan cuts our incarcerated population by 50 percent, because we know that incarceration often does even more harm than what it was meant to punish. We will work to achieve this by this by eliminating incarceration for drug possession, ending mandatory minimums and legalizing marijuana. Because profit should never be the motivation for justice, we’ll take steps to abolish private prisons, and shut down the for-profit bail industry to stop the predatory extraction of wealth from Black communities. And for those who currently serve punitively long sentences, we will establish an independent clemency commission, outside of the Department of Justice, to recommend broad categories of people to be released.

This election, we have the chance to transform our criminal justice system into something that works for all Americans

My administration will also pay particular attention to the over 40,000 children incarcerated in the United States, because children should be treated as children. That starts with investing in a new $100 million federal competitive grant for states and localities to close down youth prisons and expand programming that actually meets the needs of children. We will push to raise the age at which one can be tried as an adult, remove children from adult jails and prisons and enforce the Supreme Court’s ban on juvenile life sentences without parole.

We know all too well that the criminalization of Black children often starts in schools, where Black students are more harshly disciplined and increased police presence can filter students into the school to prison pipeline. My administration will respond by directing the Department of Education to issue guidance on alternative disciplinary practices and encouraging legislation that eliminates suspensions for bias-prone infractions like “disrespect” or “violating the dress code.” The bias embedded in discretionary school discipline is why I support California's recently-passed CROWN Act, which bans hair discrimination, and makes sure that kids like Michael Trimble can go to school.

Black parents should never have to worry if their children are safe in the presence of those sworn to protect them. And yet, when serious systemic law enforcement issues have cost the lives of Atatiana Jefferson, Botham Jean and countless others, it’s understandable why so many Black people view police more as an occupying force than a protective one.

Good intentions are not enough. We need meaningful change and a new approach.

Our plan to reimagine policing starts with promoting practices and policies that raise the legal standard under which officers can use lethal force and abolishing qualified immunity, which often prohibits officers from being held accountable in court. We will promote bias-free policing by creating a four-year national police academy. Finally, we will ensure police accountability by creating a national review board to independently assess officer misconduct and reinvigorating the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division with the purpose of investigating the complaints thoroughly and promoting accountability.

This election, we have the chance to transform our criminal justice system into something that works for all Americans. This is not just an opportunity — it is an obligation. These injustices have a long history within our government, often devised by those in the highest offices. In many respects, what happened to Cyntoia Brown is still happening all across the country. Good intentions are not enough. We need meaningful change and a new approach. And that’s exactly what I’m prepared to bring as president.