Bernie Sanders Takes Aim at the Pathology of the For-Profit Criminal Justice System

August 20, 2019

An analysis of Sen Sanders' new criminal justice reform plan and a brief history of neoliberal democrats 'playing' at progressive politics while enacting regressive policies

An analysis of Sen Sanders' new criminal justice reform plan and a brief history of neoliberal democrats 'playing' at progressive politics while enacting regressive policies


Bernie Sanders Takes Aim at the Pathology of the For-Profit Criminal Justice System

Story Transcript

TAYA GRAHAM: Hello, my name is Taya Graham and welcome to a special edition of the Police Accountability Report. As we’ve said before, the point of the show is to hold the powerful institution of policing accountable, and that process goes beyond simple acts of malfeasance by individuals and into the realm of policy. That is, we will try to examine the underlying power that drives the imperative to police so destructively in this country. And if you have ideas for the show or tips on police misconduct, please reach out to us at the Police Accountability Report on Facebook or Twitter, or message me directly at TayasBaltimore on Facebook or Twitter.

So today we’re going to take a closer look at these policies through the lens of a proposal to change them. Over the weekend, presidential candidate Bernie Sanders announced a plan that would take aim at one of the least talked about aspects of our current law enforcement industrial complex, just how profitable it really is. From cash bail and civil forfeiture to the process of incarcerating the largest number of people in the world, criminal justice in this country translates into billions for private corporations and police alike, and eliminating those profits is one of the central themes of Sanders’ proposal. Let’s take a listen.

BERNIE SANDERS: We are the wealthiest country in the history of the world. That’s a fact. Yet, we have more people in jail and in the criminal justice system on probation and on parole by far. Ain’t even close than any other major country on Earth. I want you to think about it. China is a country four times our size. It is a communist authoritarian country that does not tolerate dissent particularly well. Four times our size. We have more people in jail than China does. We spend— and I want everybody to hear this— $80 billion a year of taxpayers’ money at the local, state and federal level to lock up fellow Americans, $80 billion a year.

TAYA GRAHAM: So Senator Sanders wants to end private prisons, cash bail, and the criminalization of addiction. He wants to abolish the death penalty and end excessive sentencing with the goal of cutting the prison population in half. To discuss how this would work and what it means, I’m joined by the co-host of the Police Accountability Report, Stephen Janis. So Stephen, just from the start, there’s one thing that really stands out to me and I’m know I’m going to be a bit granular here.

STEPHEN JANIS: Yeah.

TAYA GRAHAM: Sanders talks about the profit the system makes off of prisoners, and one of those areas that perhaps goes unnoticed is phone calls in prison-

STEPHEN JANIS: Yeah.

TAYA GRAHAM: Can you talk about that?

STEPHEN JANIS: This is amazing that people don’t realize this, but private corporations make $1.2 billion a year off the phone calls from prisoners. Now, you know, a person who’s incarcerated doesn’t really have a choice of a phone plan, right?

TAYA GRAHAM: Right.

STEPHEN JANIS: But because of the partnership between government and private corporations, it becomes a huge profit center for these people who are already in really bad circumstances.

TAYA GRAHAM: Right.

STEPHEN JANIS: You can’t work, you have a criminal record, and you’re paying $1.2 billion to call your relatives, the only lifeline you have to home.

TAYA GRAHAM: So basically, there are people who are in prison right now who are making a dollar a day, how can they possibly afford something like this?

STEPHEN JANIS: That’s what’s amazing about this. You know, prison allows people to be paid nothing for labor. So you could literally take up all your pay in one single phone call. We just talked to someone who had experience with that, who would make one phone call and it would cost them their entire wages in prison for a month.

TAYA GRAHAM: For a month, right?

STEPHEN JANIS: So the reason this is important and I think it’s the reason that Sanders has brought attention to this is because they’re just gouging people. We’re not reforming people or making them serve their time, we’re actually taking advantage of a situation to actually extract profits. And that’s very destructive socially, I think.

TAYA GRAHAM: I think what you’re showing here is the crux of the problem, which is that the people who are in prison are disproportionately poor.

STEPHEN JANIS: Yeah.

TAYA GRAHAM: So how is this affecting the people who are most vulnerable in our society?

STEPHEN JANIS: Well, it only aggravates poverty, which poverty, of course, is one of the great indicators of crime in the first place and it shows, to cite the great Dr. Cornell West, what neoliberal policy really looks like. You take a social ill like poverty, and you criminalize it, and then you profit off it. And in this case, the ability to charge people $1.2 billion who are already poor, already vulnerable, who already are susceptible to the criminal justice system is just completely not productive, socially destructive, and really, I think, one of the worst aspects of capitalism.

TAYA GRAHAM: There’s another facet of Sanders’ plan to address a huge problem, but one that also doesn’t get the attention it deserves, and that’s civil asset forfeiture. It’s a process that allows police to confiscate property without any due process, and it’s very lucrative. In fact, since 2001 the federal government has seized $24 billion in assets, a great deal from people who were never convicted of a crime. So Stephen, tell me how Sanders targets this unfair practice.

STEPHEN JANIS: Well, the thing is, this is the linchpin of profit in policing. Basically, if police suspect any sort of crime has been committed in conjunction with property, they seize it and take it, and it’s led to all sorts of abuses throughout the country. And it also violates The Bill of Rights, because you also have due process. Police can literally take your property in the United States of America without convicting you of a crime. And it’s very hard to get that property back. So it’s become an incentive for police departments, especially local police departments—

TAYA GRAHAM: Right.

STEPHEN JANIS: A lot of the money is federal, but local police departments can do the same thing. So I just read a story about a woman who transported $20 worth of crack to someone and they took her $50,000 Chevy Tahoe or something.

TAYA GRAHAM: Wow!

STEPHEN JANIS: It is – basically makes that connection policing profit. It warps the system, it’s not even constitutional, and it continues to be a problem because it’s focused on people who can least afford it.

TAYA GRAHAM: So another facet of the criminal justice system that Sanders wants to engage with is the cash bail system.

STEPHEN JANIS: Right.

TAYA GRAHAM: Now, I know you’ve done a lot of investigation on that locally. Can you talk about that?

STEPHEN JANIS: Well, basically what Sanders says is very simple. He said, “People are in jail simply because they’re poor.” You know, cash bail is basically a way to keep people incarcerated, because a lot of people who are already poor can’t afford to post bail.

TAYA GRAHAM: Right.

STEPHEN JANIS: And it’s not about being a danger to the community or showing up for trial, because 95% of people show up for trial. And as was proven actually, in this state when we eliminate cash bail, there was no change in the number of people who showed up for trial.

TAYA GRAHAM: Interesting.

STEPHEN JANIS: So all it is, is a way to tax poor people and to keep them locked up, and to make money for a bail industry, which is backed by huge corporations. The bail industry extracts huge profits from poor communities—

TAYA GRAHAM: Right.

STEPHEN JANIS: Through large banks and insurance companies, so it’s another sort of conveyor belt to profiting off poverty through criminal justice.

TAYA GRAHAM: So the basic premise here is profit. Profit off incarceration, profit off poverty, profit off misery. I don’t think I missed anything. But we have to be honest, didn’t the Democratic Party have a big hand in the system? Didn’t the 1994 Crime Bill, which Bernie voted for, play a big role in creating this system that exists today? Isn’t that one of the reasons we incarcerate even more people than China? Stephen, can you talk a little bit about how mass incarceration really works—

STEPHEN JANIS: Yeah.

TAYA GRAHAM: In this country?

STEPHEN JANIS: I mean, the whole premise of having a progressive wing of the party is to remind the Democratic Party of how horrible his policies were during the proceeding decades. The 1994 Crime Bill, which really started the US on— along with some sentencing bills in the 80s— started the US on this path towards mass incarceration—

TAYA GRAHAM: Right.

STEPHEN JANIS: Like no other country in the world, started with the Democrats under President Clinton.

TAYA GRAHAM: Right. Wasn’t this a move by Democrats to try to appear tougher than Republicans and not soft on crime?

STEPHEN JANIS: Yeah, I mean, we saw it here locally with Mayor Martin O’Malley when we implemented zero tolerance. It was one of the worst, most egregious policies ever implemented in criminal justice. Hundreds of thousands of African Americans were illegally arrested, and all the Democrats stood by. And so, I think it’s important that when people criticize Sanders or the progressive wing of the party, that without that, they’re just warmed over Republicans in many sense, you know?

TAYA GRAHAM: That’s a good one.

STEPHEN JANIS: Neoliberal warmed over Republicans without progressive – and I think that’s the point of this reform plan.

TAYA GRAHAM: And there is a lot for Democrats to answer for. For example, Corey Booker implemented his own brand of zero tolerance in Newark when he was mayor, and later pushed back against a Justice Department report about the city that found serious racism in his own department. And Pete Buttigieg fired a black police chief who had complained about racism from some of his white officers. And Stephen, at home, we’ve seen Democrats—

STEPHEN JANIS: Yeah.

TAYA GRAHAM: Push some really extreme policies.

STEPHEN JANIS: Okay. So when talked about zero tolerance, this was Martin O’Malley, presidential candidate everyone called a “great liberal.”

TAYA GRAHAM: Right.

STEPHEN JANIS: Well, when he implemented that policy that led to 700,000 arrests in our small little city, and probably is responsible for why crime is so bad today, not a single Democrat besides State Senator Jill Carter spoke up about it.

TAYA GRAHAM: Right. And we have to remember Baltimore City only has 630,000 residents in it, roughly.

STEPHEN JANIS: Yeah.

TAYA GRAHAM: So to arrest 700,000 people in a 10-year period is absolutely amazing.

STEPHEN JANIS: Yeah. And it was very close in our legislature in terms of the cash bail because the cash bail rule, which didn’t eliminate cash bail, it simply said that judges had to consider someone’s financial standing before they imposed bail, but the Democratic-controlled legislator almost passed a bill to overturn that ruling. That’s Democrats. So you know, close to home, we see it up front. It’s very hard to push reform and I think it’s very, very revealing that the main opponents of Bernie Sanders’s plan are police unions who are already coming out and criticizing it. Why would that be? Why would the police unions want profit in the criminal justice system?

TAYA GRAHAM: Now, Sanders’s plan states that we should establish a federal no-call policy, including a registry of disreputable federal law enforcement officers so testimony from untrustworthy sources does not lead to criminal convictions. Now, Stephen, you’ve done a lot of reporting on do not call lists at a local level—

STEPHEN JANIS: Yeah.

TAYA GRAHAM: How exactly do they work, and do they really address the problem here?

STEPHEN JANIS: Well basically, when prosecutors determine that an officer’s unreliable for some sort of past behavior, they put them on a do not call list. It means you can’t be called to testify in court. And it’s sort of a medium solution to a bigger problem. Basically, you don’t want this officer to come in because they have credibility problems. But really, if an officer’s a liar or a serial liar to the extent that prosecutors feel like they have to put them on a list, he or she should probably be fired.

TAYA GRAHAM: Right.

STEPHEN JANIS: But the reason it’s good is because it’s very hard to fire police officers. You know, as we just saw with the case of Eric Garner, right, Officer Pantaleo, it took five years to fire him.

TAYA GRAHAM: Right.

STEPHEN JANIS: So this is a good solution to a problem that has deeper structural issues that should be fixed on a more basic level, but at least it keeps those officers out of court.

TAYA GRAHAM: Some people say Bernie Sanders is just pandering to the African American vote with this plan. So let me just say this first off, what’s so wrong with pandering to black voters? We see people pander to voters all the time. Those Democrats aren’t eating corn dogs and deep fried peanut butter and jelly sandwiches to not appeal to Iowa voters. And if this pandering leads to real reforms for the criminal justice system, then feel free to pander away. And secondly, African Americans are disproportionately affected by the criminal justice system, but so are Native Americans and Latinos. For example, Native American men are four times more likely to be incarcerated than white men. There is a reservation-to-prison pipeline, so maybe this criminal justice system reform plan is just good policy for all Americans. Stephen, do you agree with me on this?

STEPHEN JANIS: I’m going to agree with you on this, but you know, I think one of the things we’ve seen that I’ve never really seen before in American political coverage in the media or with the president—You know, President Trump has absolutely not expanded his base, fixated completely on this so-called Trump voter.

TAYA GRAHAM: Right.

STEPHEN JANIS: Who, the Trump voter has become the narrative of the mainstream media— what the Trump voter wants, what the Trump voter thinks—

TAYA GRAHAM: Yes.

STEPHEN JANIS: What are Trump voters thinking?

TAYA GRAHAM: Exactly.

STEPHEN JANIS: To absolutely doing, kind of reversing what I feel the media – or over-correcting for what they felt was an oversight before, to the extent that no other voter seems to matter. I mean, all we ever hear about is Trump’s base, Trump’s supporters, Trump this, Trump that, but we never really hear about any other constituencies. And given that it’s a minority of voters—

TAYA GRAHAM: Right.

STEPHEN JANIS: I think you raise a good point. What is wrong with pandering to voters, or at least trying to address the concerns? It’s part of the normal democratic process.

TAYA GRAHAM: Right? What’s wrong with being inclusive?

STEPHEN JANIS: Yeah, exactly.

TAYA GRAHAM: I want to thank my reporting partner, Stephen Janis, for helping me take a closer look at this promising criminal justice system reform plan. And if any of you watching have questions or tips, please feel free to reach out to us in the comments or at the Police Accountability Report on Facebook or Twitter. My name is Taya Graham, and I want to thank you for joining me for this Police Accountability Report.