PROTECTING COMMUNITIES AND BUILDING TRUST BY REFORMING OUR CRIMINAL JUSTICE SYSTEM
Our criminal justice system is failing to keep communities safe—and failing to deliver justice. America is the land of the free, and yet more of our people are behind bars, per capita, than anywhere else in the world. Instead of making evidence-based investments in education, jobs, health care, and housing that are proven to keep communities safe and prevent crime from occurring in the first place, our system has criminalized poverty, overpoliced and underserved Black and Latino communities, and cut public services. Instead of offering the incarcerated the opportunity to turn their lives around, our prisons are overcrowded and continue to rely on inhumane methods of punishment. Instead of treating those who have served their time as full citizens upon their return to society, too many of our laws continue to punish the formerly incarcerated, erecting barriers to housing, employment, and voting rights for millions of Americans.
Democrats believe we need to overhaul the criminal justice system from top to bottom. Police brutality is a stain on the soul of our nation. It is unacceptable that millions of people in our country have good reason to fear they may lose their lives in a routine traffic stop, or while standing on a street corner, or while playing with a toy in a public park. It is unacceptable that Black parents must have “the talk” with their children, to try to protect them from the very police officers who are supposed to be sworn to protect and serve them. It is unacceptable that more than 1,000 people, a quarter of them Black, have been killed by police every year since 2015. Democrats also recognize that all too often, systematic cuts to public services have left police officers on the front lines of responding to social challenges for which they have not been trained, from homelessness to mental health crises to the opioid epidemic. We can and must do better for our communities.
Democrats know we can end the era of mass incarceration and dramatically reduce the number of Americans held in jails and prisons while continuing to reduce crime rates, which have fallen steadily from their peak nearly three decades ago. This is the moment to root out structural and systemic racism in our criminal justice system and our society, and reimagine public safety for the benefit of our people and the character of our country.
We must start by preventing people from entering the criminal justice system in the first place. Democrats believe we must break the school-to-prison pipeline that too often relies on arrests and law enforcement to address misbehavior that ought to be handled and deescalated within the school. We support re-issuing federal guidance from the Department of Education and the Department of Justice to prevent the disparate disciplinary treatment of children of color and children with disabilities in school and educational settings. Democrats believe every school should have sufficient funding to employ guidance counselors, social workers, nurses, or school psychologists to help guarantee age-appropriate and racially equitable student disciplinary practices, rather than turning to police to resolve these issues.
A growing number of states have recognized it is unjust—and unjustifiable—to punish children and teenagers as harshly as adults. We believe that if you aren’t old enough to drink, you aren’t old enough to be sentenced to life without parole. The federal government will incentivize states to stop incarcerating kids, and develop community-based alternatives to prison and detention centers for youth and invest in after-school programs, community centers, and summer jobs to provide opportunities for young people at risk. And Democrats believe that children who do enter the juvenile justice system should be given a true second chance, including by automatically sealing and expunging juvenile records.
Democrats believe we must ensure real accountability for individual and systemic misconduct in our police departments, prevent law enforcement from becoming unnecessarily entangled in the everyday lives of Americans, and reimagine policing for the benefit and safety of the American people. In recent years, some innovative police departments have enacted evidence-based reforms to change their approach by investing in robust training and putting in place—and, even more crucially, enforcing—strong standards governing conflict resolution, de-escalation, and use of force. We must build on these evidence-based approaches and implement them nationwide.
Democrats will establish strict national standards governing the use of force, including banning the use of chokeholds and carotid holds and permitting deadly force only when necessary and a last resort to prevent an imminent threat to life. Americans must feel safe when they are asleep in their own homes. We will work to establish “no-knock warrants” standards. The risk of mistakes and unintended consequences is too great. We will require immediate application of these standards to all federal law enforcement agencies and condition federal grants on their adoption at the state and local level. We will require officer training in effective nonviolent tactics, appropriate use of force, implicit bias, and peer intervention, both at the academy and on the job. And we will ban racial and religious profiling in law enforcement.
Democrats will support measures to improve training and education for judges, corrections officers, prosecutors, public defenders, and police officers to ensure transgender and gender non-conforming people receive fair and equitable treatment in the criminal justice system.
It is past time to end the failed “War on Drugs,” which has imprisoned millions of Americans—disproportionately Black people and Latinos—and hasn’t been effective in reducing drug use. Democrats support policies that will reorient our public safety approach toward prevention, and away from over-policing—including by making evidence-based investments in jobs, housing, education, and the arts that will make our nation fairer, freer, and more prosperous.
Democrats will reinvigorate community policing approaches, so officers on the beat better serve the neighborhoods they work in, and make smart investments to incentivize departments to build effective partnerships with social workers and mental health and substance use counselors to help respond to public health challenges. Body cameras are not a panacea, but Democrats believe they can help improve accountability and transparency; we support their continued use and will take steps to improve compliance, require their use in blended federal-local task forces, and promulgate best practices to protect personal privacy. Democrats believe weapons of war have no place on our streets, and will once again limit the sale and transfer of surplus military weapons to domestic law enforcement agencies—a policy President Trump reversed immediately upon taking office.
We cannot create trust without holding those in power accountable for their actions. Democrats will reinvigorate pattern-or-practice investigations into police misconduct at the Department of Justice, and strengthen them through new subpoena powers and expanded oversight to address systemic misconduct by prosecutors. Far too often, the law has shielded police officers who stand accused of heinous violations of civil and human rights. Democrats support lowering the intent standard for federally prosecuting law enforcement officials for civil rights violations. We will also act to ensure that victims of federal, state, or local law enforcement abuses of power can seek justice through civil litigation by reining in the doctrine of qualified immunity.
The American people deserve access to timely and accurate data on activities supported by their tax dollars, including policing. We will collect and publish data on the use of force in police departments across the country to promote transparency and accountability. To increase transparency and improve federal, state, and local law enforcement hiring practices, Democrats will also establish a national registry of officers who have been found to have abused their power.
Democrats also support measures to increase diversity among the ranks of police departments, so our law enforcement agencies look more like the communities they serve. And we will seek increased funding for officer health and well-being in police departments across the country, including for personal safety equipment and mental health services.
Substance use disorders are diseases, not crimes. Democrats believe no one should be in prison solely because they use drugs. Democrats will decriminalize marijuana use and reschedule it through executive action on the federal level. We will support legalization of medical marijuana, and believe states should be able to make their own decisions about recreational use. The Justice Department should not launch federal prosecutions of conduct that is legal at the state level. All past criminal convictions for cannabis use should be automatically expunged. And rather than involving the criminal justice system, Democrats support increased use of drug courts, harm reduction interventions, and treatment diversion programs for those struggling with substance use disorders.
Poverty is not a crime, and it should not be treated as one. Democrats support eliminating the use of cash bail and believe no one should be imprisoned merely for failing to pay fines or fees, or have their driver’s licenses revoked for unpaid tickets or simple violations. Equal justice under the law should not be contingent on the ability to pay for quality legal representation, which is why we support increasing funding for public defenders and for the Legal Services Corporation.
Since 1990, the United States has grown by one-third, the number of cases in federal district courts has increased by 38 percent, federal circuit court filings have risen by 40 percent, and federal cases involving a felony defendant are up 60 percent, but we have not expanded the federal judiciary to reflect this reality in nearly 30 years. Democrats will commit to creating new federal district and circuit judgeships consistent with recommendations from the Judicial Conference.
Sentencing decisions should be based on the facts of each case, including the severity of the offense and individuals’ circumstances. Democrats support allowing judges to determine appropriate sentences, which is why we will fight to repeal federal mandatory minimums, incentivize states to do the same, and make all sentencing reductions retroactive so judges can reconsider past cases where their hands were tied. We believe it is long past time to end the federal sentencing disparity between crack and powdered cocaine, which has contributed to the disproportionate imprisonment of people of color. And Democrats continue to support abolishing the death penalty.
Our courts should reflect our country. Democrats will appoint people to the bench who are committed to seeing justice be served, and treating each case on its merits. We will nominate and confirm federal judges who have diverse backgrounds and experiences, including as public defenders, legal aid attorneys, and civil rights lawyers.
Democrats are proud that the Obama-Biden Administration commuted the sentences of more than 1,700 people serving unjust sentences following thorough review of their individual cases, and we support the continued use of the President’s clemency powers to secure the release of those serving unduly long sentences. We denounce President Trump’s inappropriate use of clemency to help his friends and political cronies avoid justice. We also support establishing an independent clemency board to ensure an appropriate, effective process for using clemency, especially to address systemic racism and other priorities.
Private profit should not motivate the provision of vital public services, including in the criminal justice system. Democrats support ending the use of private prisons and private detention centers, and will take steps to eliminate profiteering from diversion programs, commercial bail, electronic monitoring, prison commissaries, and reentry and treatment programs. Democrats believe prisoners should have a meaningful opportunity to challenge wrongful convictions and unconstitutional conditions in prisons. We also believe that too many of our jails and prisons subject people to inhumane treatment, and will work to end practices like solitary confinement for adults and juveniles, ban the use of restraints on pregnant federal inmates, and ban the use of chokeholds and carotid holds. Incarcerated people must not be denied access to vital medical care or unnecessarily exposed to disease, as they have been during the COVID-19 pandemic. And Democrats will pursue a holistic approach to rehabilitation, increasing support for programs that provide educational opportunities, including pursuing college degrees, for those in the criminal justice system, both in prison and upon release.
Democrats believe in redemption. We must deepen our commitment to helping those who have served their time re-enter society, earn a good living, and participate in our democracy as the full citizens they are. We support the automatic expungement of certain criminal records for those that have been fully acquitted, wrongfully convicted, or pardoned by the executive. We will aim to ensure access to transitional housing for returning citizens, support expanded access to mental health and substance use treatment, and will stop the practice of reincarcerating people for technical violations of probation or parole. Democrats support federal and state efforts to “ban the box” and will make it easier for returning citizens to access work opportunities through the Job Corps. The formerly incarcerated should not be blocked from exercising their voting rights or accessing public services, including Pell Grants and nutrition assistance, available to other free citizens of the United States. Continuing to punish a person after they have rejoined the community is both cruel and counterproductive.