March 16, 2020

Voters Organized to Educate Endorses Bernie Sanders for President

On the basis of long memories, deep research, and concern for America’s future, Voters Organized to Educate endorses Bernie Sanders in the Democratic Presidential Primary election. 

A review of both Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders’ records and rhetoric makes a clear case in favor of Sanders. As an organization focused on ending mass incarceration and promoting criminal justice reform, we believe Bernie Sanders will make the best use of cabinet appointees, and fully employ federal agencies, executive orders, and federal budget requests to move our nation towards reform.

We need a candidate who prioritizes decarceration, community health, and urgent reform. This is why we believe Bernie Sanders should be our next president:

Sanders has a strong history supporting progressive criminal justice reform plans. He voted against the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (AEDPA), and made clear and impassioned speeches discussing how the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, commonly known as the 1994 Crime Bill, and originally drafted by Joe Biden, was inhumane, and would not solve the real problems at hand. Although Sanders voted for the bill, he passionately noted that it was only because it included funding for the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), and he accurately predicted that we will never incarcerate our way out of crime. Sanders has long called for a massive overhaul on the racist drug war, and to hold opioid drug manufacturers (who knew as much about the lethality of their products as tobacco manufacturers) accountable. 

Sanders has explained that he would remove marijuana from the Controlled Substance Act on his first day in office, something the president’s administration has the power to do. This would effectively legalize marijuana under federal law, and alter state laws that include marijuana as a Schedule I Drug (which includes heroin and cocaine). Further, he will expunge past convictions of marijuana-related offenses, and ensure that communities most impacted by the War on Drugs benefit from the revenue generated from legalized marijuana.

Despite other headlines dominating the news today, America is still struggling with the crisis of detaining immigrants seeking to live in America. This crisis extends to revelations of abusing children and hideous profiteering, and issues Bernie has plainly acknowledged in his plan to decriminalize border crossing

With the coronavirus disrupting all our lives, we are suddenly confronted with what socialized health care means. It isn’t enough for any of us to have health insurance that may cover testing and treatments–it matters that our uninsured neighbors have equal access to care. Similarly, while some people may have the choice to work remotely, others are threatened with losing their jobs. Many Americans work paycheck-to-paycheck in order to feed their children and provide a safe place to live. It is imperative that our next president takes a people-first approach to our country’s health crisis, and we believe Sanders would do just that.  

Finally, on the most fundamental right of citizenship, voting, Bernie Sanders has always felt that all citizens should never lose their right to vote, similar to the belief in his home state of Vermont and many nations around the world. As an organization comprised largely of people impacted by our country’s system of mass incarceration, Sanders’ view on the right to vote resonates deeply with us. 

Many American people are living extremely difficult lives with crushing economic realities, while the federal government uses taxpayer funds for both the big bank bailout and now a $1.5 trillion economic stimulus for Wall Street. For some, this puts them between a rock and a hard place whether they are fifteen and never arrested, or fifty and recently released. What would allow people to avoid making tough survival choices? Improvement in housing, health care, and education would help. Bernie Sanders has a clear approach to building a stronger safety net while improving people’s living conditions. 

Read Sanders’ full criminal justice reform plan.

We need to hold politicians accountable for their past mistakes. We can’t separate our modern criminal (in)justice system from Joe Biden’s troubling political history which expanded mass incarceration. This is why we’re not endorsing Biden: 

We are all entitled to past mistakes, and people who have been convicted of crimes, held accountable through prison and other punishments, are very familiar with how hard it can be to gain trust from the community, while having past mistakes. Many of us who focus on criminal justice reform and public health are also living with convictions, and some of us are still being punished for our mistakes, decades later. The ‘second chance’ many voters seem to be willing to extend to Biden has and is not always extended to us.

Mistakes in policy decisions should not just be assessed in hindsight. We should look first at how someone approached solving social problems. Looking back on the architects of mass incarceration, we see people like Biden who never cared to understand the cycles of oppression that often lead people to commit crimes. He chose to harshly crackdown on individuals, blaming each individual as the root of the problem, instead of reforming the system. In 1993, Biden spoke about putting kids behind bars in such a way that shows his willful ignorance, and this speech, among others, is evidence that Biden is not and does not think about our country’s deep-seated systemic inequalities. 

Many will not recall, but it was Biden leading the Democrats’ charge for heavy policing, drug prohibition, and incarceration during the Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush administrations, and during the sweeping punitive legislation implemented between 1984-1988. Many people rightfully credit him with the 1994 Crime Bill, which he drafted and even he has referred to as the “Biden crime bill.” But, some voters are less aware of the AEDPA and the Prison Litigation Reform Act–both of which served to gut habeas corpus review (making the rules far more narrow for people to challenge unconstitutional and wrongful convictions) and overturn the many prison conditions consent decrees across the nation. Those consent decrees, covering things such as solitary confinement, programming, and minimum time outdoors, were often hard to achieve during an era of the most inhumane conditions and prison rebellions.

In a 2015 book about the bipartisan expansion of mass incarceration under race-neutral rhetoric, Biden is quoted stating, “let me define the liberal wing of the Democratic Party. The liberal wing of the Democratic Party is now for 60 new death penalties. That is what is in this bill. The liberal wing of the Democratic Party has 70 enhanced penalties.” He continues, stating, “the liberal wing of the Democratic Party is for 100,000 cops. The liberal wing of the Democratic Party is for 125,000 new state prison cells.”

There is certainly room for a difference of ideas on how to approach crime, but Biden’s view has never been our, liberal view. Biden’s platform on justice emphasizes some of the wrong things–such as mandatory minimums for nonviolent offenses, while under-appreciating important resources such as transitional housing for all people released from prison, which is hundreds of thousands of people per year.  

Although Biden correctly acknowledges that mass incarceration is a primarily a state-level problem, he entirely misses the role of the federal government in funding those bad decisions. The federal government can and has funded prison construction, and added incentives for states to increase parole waiting times. The federal government also incentivized state’s use of three-strikes sentencing and life-without-parole provisions (which have since been scaled back across the country for their brutality). Furthermore, it was federal funding that increased police presence in schools, provided weapons, created drug task forces, and ramped up police in public housing. When cities gave their officers quotas, such as the notorious stop-and-frisk practice in New York City, the sheer number of federally funded police officers resulted in a massive amount of arrests. Under the pretext of frisking people for handguns, the small percentage of people who did have something illegal on them were people with small amounts of recreational drugs.

Regarding the war on communities known as the “drug war,” or “the war on drugs,” Biden was a fierce advocate for increasing penalties to where they are today. Biden co-sponsored the Anti-Drug Abuse Act, which created mandatory minimums for drug crimes, including the infamous crack-versus-cocaine sentencing disparity, 100:1 (the disparity is now 17:1. It was reduced after many years of people and their families suffering such brutal sentences). The racial discrepancies among the targets in the drug war are most obvious when considering the number of police arrests on college campuses versus arrests in public housing neighborhoods. While college students are notorious for drug use, only college-aged Black and Latino youth were targeted and arrested.

Biden is a proud supporter of the Patriot Act, which has led to widespread surveillance and detention, especially targeting Muslim Americans. Many Democrats were opposed to some of the post-9/11 reactions by the Bush Administration, such as the Iraq invasion (also championed by Biden) and the Patriot Act. Those concerns and oppositions should be no less when it is their own party in power.

Biden has not reckoned with his past aside from stating here-and-there that “we went too far” with mass incarceration. He has not apologized to any of the millions of people impacted by his punitive policies, including children who were unnecessarily funneled into the school-to-prison pipeline. Biden has not even said what he would have done differently if he had the chance. His current criminal justice platform was not on his agenda in 2000, 2010, nor in 2015. Only now, at age 78, is he nudging towards reform-like rhetoric. Someone wielding as much political power as Senator and former Vice President Joe Biden could be doing much more (and should be) if he is remorseful for his past. People convicted under the laws he crafted must be extremely remorseful, and repeatedly apologize, merely to get a job making minimum wage, to rent an apartment, or be admitted into college. More should be expected of someone seeking to be our next president.

When an immigration activist pressed Biden about deportation policy under President Obama, Biden (who said he would prioritize deportations) replied, “you should vote for Trump.” On several occasions, Biden has gotten aggressive with voters who have challenged him on issues, such as gun rights. He told one person to “step outside,” challenged another to a push-up contest, and called someone else a “dog-faced pony soldier.” Such behavior runs against the concept of lively debate and inclusive democracy.

Finally, Biden, in stark contrast with Sanders, does not support voting rights for incarcerated people, nor does he support restoring voting rights to the nearly seven million people on probation and parole across the United States. In Biden’s home state of Delaware where he has long been the most powerful political figure, people on probation or parole can not vote, and some people are permanently disenfranchised. Until 2000, everyone convicted of a felony was permanently disenfranchised for life. Until 2013, there was a five-year waiting period after one’s sentence was completed before regaining the right to vote, and until 2016 people needed to pay all their fines and fees before they were able to vote. Biden does not believe the fundamental right of citizenship should belong to people even on probation, people who were sentenced to an alternative to incarceration. Among the many deal breakers, this one is long past its due date.

Both candidates would have earned more of our support had they attended our Justice Votes 2020 Town Hall last fall at the Eastern State Penitentiary, in Philadelphia. There, 75 formerly incarcerated leaders asked questions of Cory Booker, Kamala Harris, and Tom Steyer. Either Bernie or Biden might have won more points, and possible votes, through their answers that would have been live streamed to more than 200 televised watch parties across the country. Campaigns are full of strategic choices, and time is limited, but we feel the year 2000 is the last year that candidates of either major party can ignore the many millions of voters who are directly impacted by mass incarceration and still win.

For those who support Joe Biden in this primary, and further, if he wins the Democratic nomination, we want to remind you of Frederick Douglass’ immortal words, “power concedes nothing without demand. It never has, and never will.”

Further Reading:



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