Bernie Sanders

Bernie Sanders Calls for Legalizing Marijuana and Curtailing Asset Forfeiture in Sprawling Criminal Justice Plan

Sanders' plan takes aim at every part of the justice system, including typical Sanders targets like private prisons and corporate "profiteers."


Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders (D–Vt.) released a plan over the weekend to transform the U.S. criminal justice system, calling for federal marijuana legalization, a ban on private prisons, an end to cash bail, and curtailing civil asset forfeiture.

Sanders' 6,000-word plan, first reported by Politico, is filled with proposals that would target nearly every aspect of the criminal justice system, from policing to prosecutors to juvenile justice to pretrial detention to sentencing to the Sixth Amendment right to counsel.

The sprawling document calls for ending the federal death penalty and solitary confinement; pumping billions of dollars into state public defender systems and creating a new federal agency to oversee them; legalizing "safe injection sites" and needle exchanges; and creating a "prisoner bill of rights" that would restore inmate voting rights and lift the ban on federal Pell Grants to inmates.

It also contains typical Sanders' rhetoric about the dangers of privatization, such as the need to ban private prisons and eliminate "profiteering" in reentry and rehabilitation services for recently released inmates. (Private prisons hold less than 10 percent of inmates in the U.S. prison population.) 

Alex Vitale, a professor of sociology at Brooklyn College and the author of The End of Policing, advised the Sanders campaign on its criminal justice plan and said the document sets a "gold standard for looking comprehensively at our messed up criminal justice system."

"The most important thing for me is the framing language that says that we're over-relying on the criminal justice system to solve social problems," Vitale says. "We need to shift our emphasis from trying to engage in procedural reforms of policing and move to reduce the role of the police."

In the years since the Black Lives Matter movement rose to prominence, criminal justice reform has become a must-address issue for Democratic candidates. Sanders faced criticism in his 2016 campaign for focusing primarily on economic issues.

Other candidates in the crowded 2020 field have also released similar proposals, such as Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro, and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), the latter of which released her criminal justice plan today.

The leftward shift has left more centrist candidates, such as former Vice President Joe Biden, struggling to explain their tough-on-crime pasts. As Reason's Christian Britschgi wrote, Biden's criminal justice plan calls for rolling back many of the same laws that Biden himself spearheaded in the 1980s and '90s:

Biden has also endorsed a list of other, more substantive reforms, including the elimination of mandatory minimums, the abolition of private prisons, the expanded use of drug courts, and the end of the death penalty. He would also eliminate the sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine, and he thinks states should be allowed to pursue their own cannabis legalization policies without federal interference.

Many of Sanders' proposals, such as eliminating federal mandatory minimums and the federal death penalty, would presumably require congressional action for any long-term fix, which makes their likelihood extremely doubtful. It took a massive political lift by criminal justice advocates to pass the FIRST STEP Act last year, which merely reduced several of the harshest mandatory minimums on the books.

Other parts of Sanders' plan, such as reducing states' pretrial detention populations, would rely on federal grants (or the withholding of grants) to nudge states into compliance with federal standards. State prison systems and county jails hold the vast majority of inmates in the U.S., and under federalism this carrot-and-stick approach is the primary way in which the federal government tries to exert influence over the states, often with mixed results.

Nevertheless, Sanders' criminal justice plan is a Christmas list of things advocates have been agitating for and writing about for years.

Sanders would rescind former Attorney General Jeff Sessions' memo ordering federal prosecutors to seek the maximum sentences on the books, as well as a memo limiting the Justice Department's use of consent decrees to constrain police departments with a pattern of violating residents' constitutional rights.

The document says Sanders would "ban the practice of any law enforcement agency benefiting from civil asset forfeiture" and "limit or eliminate federal criminal justice funding for any state or locality that does not comply." Under typical asset forfeiture laws, the proceeds of property seizures often go into police and prosecutors' budgets, and civil liberties groups say this creates a perverse profit incentive.

The Justice Department's Equitable Sharing Fund currently funnels hundreds of millions of dollars a year in asset forfeiture proceeds to state and local police departments, and also allows the federal government to "adopt" local cases, letting local police to sidestep state laws that restrict their ability to retain forfeiture revenues.

Sander's plan would create a national database of fatal police encounters and require the attorney general to launch an investigation of every police-involved death. As Reason reported, the FBI collects data on fatal police shootings, but that information is voluntarily submitted by police departments, not all of which participate. As a result, the FBI reports consistently lowball the actual number of fatal police encounters in the U.S.

The plan also calls for limiting qualified immunity, a legal doctrine that shields public officials, like police, from civil lawsuits if they can prove the rights they're accused of violating were not "clearly established" at the time. Over the years, Reason has written at length about how qualified immunity's vague standard allows police to evade lawsuits if they happen to violate the Constitution in a novel way.

Sanders is one of several candidates to propose establishing an independent clemency board in the White House, separate from the Justice Department. Advocates working on Barack Obama's clemency initiative complained that one of the major roadblocks to the program was interference from the Justice Department, and they say having prosecutors involved in the vetting of clemency applications is a clear conflict of interest. Cory Booker has also proposed a similar clemency board.

Draconian "three strikes" laws would be on the chopping block under Sanders' plan as well. Reason reported last November on how a federal "three strikes" enhancement for drug offenses was used by prosecutors to hammer defendants who turned down plea deals with life sentences. The FIRST STEP Act reduced that penalty from mandatory life in prison to 25 years.

Sanders plan is long on ideas, bullish on the executive branch's power to overhaul a massive, largely independent patchwork of criminal justice systems, and somewhat short on details as to how exactly the president would do some of those things. It is also by far the most sweeping and ambitious criminal justice plan released by a Democratic candidate this cycle.

NEXT: Kamala Harris’ Medicare for All Problem Is the Democratic Party’s Medicare for All Problem

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  1. Curtailing Asset Forfeiture in

    Asset Forfeiture Reform limited to the 99%.

    1. Asset forfeiture will no longer occur in association with criminal justice and instead will be a regular feature of everyone’s life.

    2. More like the 47%. Or whatever it is that pays no net income tax.

  2. and creating a “prisoner bill of rights” that would restore inmate voting rights and lift the ban on federal Pell Grants to inmates.

    Ah yes the “if you can’t afford to go to college commit a felony” plan. Lets reward people for committing crimes. That ought to work out well.

    And as an added bonus, in addition to letting as many criminals out of prison as possible, Bernie will be confiscating everyone’s guns and ability to defend themselves.

    1. There always seems to be a poison pill…

      Dang it.

    2. If the purpose of punishment is rehabilitation, then it makes sense not to take educational opportunities/funding from inmates.
      You are right that you need to watch out for perverse incentives. But I doubt there are many who would look at doing some hard time and a criminal record as an acceptable cost for getting some of your college paid for.

      1. Not to mention the moron above you fails to take into account you can apply for Pell grants without going to prison too.

    3. +1,000….I do not know whether to laugh or cry after reading your comment!

  3. Trump could hilariously undercut so many of these rivals by rescheduling/descheduling marijuana before the election. None of these promising promises will come to fruition in any incoming administration anyway. Only the bad ones.

    1. That way he could lock down like half the libertarian vote!

    2. It wouldn’t shock me if he did just that next fall. After letting the democrats bluster about doing it for the next year. That seems like something Trump would do, just to be a dick to them.

      1. Yeah but that would be a good thing and if we know anything about Trump, it would have to be good *for him* which, unless he finds a way to profit off it, wouldn’t happen.

  4. >>curtailing civil asset forfeiture.

    repeal the 16th?

    1. The irony of Bernie Sanders saying he is going to curtail asset forfeiture is a bit much.

      1. i went for the big ask bc i figured he was doped up or dying or something.

  5. Many of Sanders’ proposals, such as eliminating federal mandatory minimums and the federal death penalty, would presumably require congressional action for any long-term fix, which makes their likelihood extremely doubtful.

    Not to mention it will depend heavily on the long-term fixes as well. It’s all well and good to say that local DAs and PDs can’t profit from asset forfeiture, but if the goods and/or funds just get turned over to federal authorities or non-profits, the problem isn’t really solved and is arguably worse. Legal marijuana from a single, government-owned source isn’t better than illegal marijuana.

  6. Bernie, it’s never too late to get a job and try working for a living. The grocery store is always hiring and sometimes even has breadlines

    1. “you don’t need 23 types of bread!!!”

      1. Pumpernickel. No way, man. Pump her for free!

      2. “How can one possibly govern a nation with 276 different kinds of cheese?”
        -Charles De Gaulle, President of France, 1959-1969

  7. never met one person who said “dude as soon as the feds give the okay i’m totes blazing up”

    1. Dude, as soon as the feds give the okay, I’m gonna drive 20 mph over the speed limit wherever I go.
      Dude, as soon as the feds give the okay to own a 30mm autocannon without having to apply for a tax stamp, I’m gonna buy a GAU-8.
      Dude, as soon as the feds give the okay to use hormones without a prescription, I’m probably gonna start using hormones without a prescription.

      I never met one person in Indiana who said, “Dude, as soon as they legalize buying cold alcohol on Sunday, I’m totally buying cold alcohol the following Sunday.” Dude…

      1. you might be making my point

    2. I think I know one.

      1. Bernie may be his man then.

  8. There are some good ideas in there but as you said, short on the specifics. Would like to see an end to mandatory minimums. His No Cash Bail bill is terrible. The federal pretrial detention laws already work very well and create a presumption of release. The state bills ending cash bail so far have done way more harm than good. The court needs to have options between personal recognizance and incarceration ESPECIALLY when the accused has violated a condition of release. Police death in custody tracking is a great idea.

    Mandatory prosecution of offenses is generally a bad idea, wrecks total havoc in domestic violence cases where those laws currently exist where prosecutors move forward on super flimsy cases.

    Notably, his list also includes re-kangarooizing college tribunals which is pretty amazing in light of his discussion about “re-invigorating due process.”

    Ultimately, there are a lot of good ideas interspersed with a decent amount of bad ideas which indicates to me that Bernie cares more about appealing to low information voters than legitimately fixing the criminal justice system.

    1. Serious question: what sort of bad outcomes have occurred because of bail reform? Less people being let out pre-trial?

      1. And no not sarcasm, I really would like to know. I doubt Reason would cover it because they’re so in favor of bail reform. They’re just as partisan as any other media in regards to certain topics.

      2. Exactly. There is too much left to the discretion of the judge. Where a judge before May have granted release on the condition of bail, now judges will just detain. This is especially a problem where the defendant has already failed to appear.

        There is no question that judges often order bail in state court where it really isn’t appropriate, but getting rid of cash bail in its entirety isn’t helping fix the problem of people being incarcerated pretrial.

    2. It don’t matter as Bolshevik Bernie has ZERO chance of winning the DEMON-CRAT nod anyway….But, he has always been a guy pushing for grandiose policies that would never even come close to being manifested….He is a theoretical LIB Prog-Tard clown & anyone who supports him is a ignorant brain-washed imbecile!

      Warren is a lock to be the next prez & in looking at the caravan of LIB Prog-Tard clowns, she is probably the best of the sad lot!

    3. I can’t believe that “low information voters” isn’t some sort of dog whistle, but its hard for me to tell, not being a dog.

  9. “End the exploitive practices of payday lenders and ensure all Americans have access to basic financial services through the Post Office.” Bernie is nuts.

    1. He didn’t want to mess with the operational efficiency of the DMV.

    2. Would that mean my loan application would have to be sent to Billings if mailed from my county seat to me? The USPS currently sends all mail from my county seat (50 miles away) to Billings (250 miles away) before forwarding it on to me. The same with the two 35 miles to our South. It takes a week for a package sent from Sidney to get here despite there only being 37 miles between towns. Got to love the goverernment.

      1. Apparently, you live in Richland County, Montana, population 10,000 and area bigger than Rhode Island, and far from the county seat in Sydney, population 5,000. And Sydney is the major population center in not only Richland County, but in the adjoining Montana counties.

        With such a low population density, most services _cannot_ be efficient. Delivering anything for just a few people across those distances is going to be expensive. A mail carrier probably has to drive about a mile per letter delivered, and takes longer to deliver 10 letters than an urban mail carrier on foot needs to deliver 100. But the USPS is not allowed to charge you what it costs. Instead, they degrade the service.

    3. It all makes sense if you assume he’s actively pro-criminal, and therefore wants to make sure poor credit risks who are in dire need of an immediate short-term loan have to go to loan sharks, rather than institutions that don’t employ leg-breakers and have to respect the bankruptcy process.

    4. Nuts that the govt, instead of working for businesses and screwing the average citizen does, oh I don’t know, work for the citizens?

      You can argue about shrinking govt but if you’re gonna have a big govt (which we will- no matter which party is in power) then you may as well have it working for you.

      People seem to act as if this libertarian “dream” is ever gonna be anything more than a dream. Hint- it won’t.

  10. In prison voting rights? I know some die-hard libertarians may support this, but I think the last time it was mentioned, it was fairly castigated. Restoration of Rights, including voting and student aid should definitely be discussed, once you finish your sentence (including parole, but definitely need to restudy sexual predator registrations).

    1. Snopes: Did Bernie Sanders Lecture Protesters on how good they have it under communism?


  11. I like the full time clemency board; the judicial branch sentences, the clemency board desentences.

    Can we extend this to Congress? Have a Repeal Chamber whose sole job is to reviews passed legislation and repeal it before the President gets a chance to sign it.

    Every agency which has rule-making authority similarly should have an independent Repeal Board.

    1. I’ve often stated we need an amendment that all federal laws sunset no more than 25 years (or less) after passage unless renewed. And the renewal process should require full debate and review before passage. All regulations passed by the executive branch in response to legislation should also be required to go before Congress with a simple majority vote (I ask only for a simple majority because I think it is more achievable to get Congress to agree to then 2/3rds).

      1. I would have all laws sunset at the end of the next session.

        I could not imagine any set of words which would actually constrain renewals to include a full debate. So I decided on two steps:

        1. All laws are inseperable. The entire law lives or dies as a single unit. This discourages legislators from lumping all laws into one for a simple renewal.

        2. Everyone affected by a law may bring suit to challenge it as defective. By this, I do not mean unconstitutional only. I mean that all laws must satisfy several criteria:

        2a. Internally consistently. Meaning if section 17a(3)(c) is in conflict with section 42(m)(c), the law is voided.

        2b. Consistently enforced. This does not mean 100% of violators are charged and convicted. It means that if person A is not charged for some major violation, then smaller violators cannot be charged. It means that if police and prosecutors ignore blatant violations, they cannot charge less obvious violations.

        2c. The language must be clear enough that a random jury understands it. The law backers can explain all they want to the jury, use all the fancy legal jargon they want, take all the time they want. But when the jury retires to discuss it, they get no assistance. Any questions? Void. Any doubt? Void. A single holdout? Void. And there are no appeals from this; it is a question of whether ordinary people, those who will be held accountable for violations, can understand it; not whether learned government judges can cobble together some rationalization.

        2d. Laws must be falsifiable. Every assertion, justification, and rationalization in the law’s text, in what the backers said during the passage debates, and what the lawyers say to defend the law, must be falsifiable. It’s not good enough to say “Murder is bad.” You have to say why it is bad.

        2e. Laws must detail the expected consequences, good and bad. Any consequences which were not detailed render the law defective and void. One of the consequences of a death sentence is it encourages corruption in covering up defective prosecutions. One of the consequences of a murder conviction is the lass of a taxpayer and disruption in the lives of his family and friends and co-workers. All these must be listed. The law can say that there are unlisted consequences as long as it lists a floor consequence; any consequence exceeding that floor voids the law. I don’t know how you would compare consequences, but financial impact comes to mind.

        2f. Laws must be effective. They must detail what percentage of violators they expect to convict. Speeding laws, for instance, would probably have to admit they only catch one in ten thousand speeders. And if someone comes along with proof that not even that many are caught, void!

        2g. Laws must detail their unique revenue source. If funds run out before the end of the fiscal year, the law is suspended. Excess funds are returned to taxpayers.

  12. A good 80% of major libertarian priorities could be achieved if Republicans all died in a plane crash at the same time.

    Except more tax cuts for billionaires and letting factories pollute for free.

    Guess which choice you guys will make!

    1. and just this morning questions arose regarding the civility of the comments …

    2. A good 90% could be achieved if Democrats all died in a plane crash at the same time.

      1. It’s just a pity that you don’t give the single slightest sanest fuck about the habitable environment for the human species.

        1. It is funny you think the Government cares or can do anything to make the environment better. Here’s a clue, the clean air act, air pollution was already going down before it passed, some research even suggested it slowed the pace for decreased pollution. Clean water act, ditto. Markets and demand usually proceed any act of regulations, e.g. the free market is better for the environment then Government. It reacts faster and more effectively.

          1. That’s the opposite of reality. Why do you think you just get to say things and will them to be true?

          2. I mean, let’s get one thing clear. We can surely agree on this.

            Just because you want something to be true doesn’t make it so.

            I know. I’ve been wishing for a unicorn that farts money for years.

            Similarly, a laissez-faire market gives zero shits about externalities like environmental pollution. It’s not even supposed to.

            1. Tony, provide evidence that what is I stated is false or the opposite of reality?
              This looks at ozone in Los Angels. I am having difficulties finding any graph that predate 1970, since most studies only look at air pollution and water pollution prior to 1970.

                Here is a graph of NO2 emissions in the US starting in 1970. Notice that rate of decline was greater before the passage of the up update clean air act of 1990. After passage the rate slowed and then increased dramatically about ten years later. This would suggest that passage of the law slowed the rate of decline.

                1. The rate of decline was highest in 1980 to around 1985. Then there was a flattening, flowed by a slight increase, then in 1988 there was a sharp decline that continued through the passage of the 1990 act, followed by another uptick and then a further decline.

                  1. At best because of the lack of national data predating the 1970 clean air act and 1972 clean water acts, no conclusion can be drawn as to their effectiveness. But based upon local data, it would appear at best they just reinforced a trend that was already occuring. This is also illustrated in the data presented in regards to the NO2 and the 1990 updating of the clean air act.

              2. Finally, markets are not laissez fair, they respond to consumer demands. The passage of the clean air act was the result of popular demand, but it lagged, as do all Government interventions. The market on the other hand must be much quicker to respond, and even anticipate consumer demand. Public pressure was already causing manufacturers to re-examine production methods and to mitigate damages. We see this with CO2 reduction in the US and again with increased gas milage. Even with leaded gas. Most manufacturers had stopped producing vehicles that ran on leaded gas prior to federal regulations.

        2. Tony, cut carbon emissions by drinking your Drano. Have all the progtards do the same.

          Problem solved.

    3. Tony, why don’t you and your Stalinist friends just go ahead and throw down with us. You like talking big, so why don’t you get off your bathhouse worn ass and do something?

      Come on faggot, I’m daring you.

      1. Daring me to do what? Fuck you in the butt? Do you have a drinking problem*?

        *A drinking problem is where you become an obnoxious cunt if you drink too much, not necessarily drinking too much in general.

  13. “Bernie Sanders Calls for Legalizing Marijuana and Curtailing Asset Forfeiture in Sprawling Criminal Justice Plan”

    Bernie throws out lots of things that are simple vote buying and vote harvesting from the uninformed voter.

    Between weed, asset forfeiture an saying he will tell the truth about aliens if elected….The guy would probably get 5,000,000 just from half-tards.

  14. “Other parts of Sanders’ plan, such as reducing states’ pretrial detention populations, would rely on federal grants (or the withholding of grants) to nudge states into compliance with federal standards.”

    Hmm. Thought that you couldn’t withhold Federal money to “nudge” states into complying with Federal law. At least that’s what we were told about laws relating to illegal immigrants.

    1. What states still have prenatal incarceration? Barbaric!

    2. I think we could fund all that by a special tax on members of all the Hollywood groups like SAG, the writer’s guild, etc.. Taking 90% of all earring over $1 million per year.

      Surely those progressive woke creative types in Hollywood are for such a measure.

  15. cbc dot ca/news/canada/toronto/mother-opposes-safe-injection-sites-1.3496502
    Radio interview with a young woman battling addiction about “safe” injection sites. Starting at 3:14

    She insisted that such sites would have exactly the opposite effect as intended. “ I don’t think it’s harm reduction anymore. It just goes into enabling and harm. When I was an addict,” she said, “I didn’t have
    anywhere to go. I’d be in stairwells, I’d be in bathrooms, I’d be in the malls. Having somewhere to go, where everybody is shooting up, it’s almost like a dream come true.”

    Addict shares how to help addicts:
    cbc dot ca/news/canada/toronto/mother-opposes-safe-injection-sites-1.34965

  16. I was almost sure that any Law Enforcement proposals Bernie Sanders has would include plans for there to be a squad of Mounted Police – – riding Unicorns!

    1. Paid for by increasing corporate taxes and income taxes (on the upper income only) to 250%.

  17. So, given the record of prison unions as a major source of political influence and cash in favor of mass incarceration, did Bernie include those profiteers off incarceration with private prisons as things he would ban? There are a lot more union prisons than private ones.

    1. Sure he did, right after he condemned welfare and no fault divorce for many of the problems of the inner city, reservations and rural America.

  18. I would make some snarky remark about blind squirrels, but I wouldn’t want to disparage squirrels, or the blind.

  19. In the years since the Black Lives Matter movement rose to prominence, criminal justice reform has become a must-address issue for Democratic candidates.

    Which libertarians have led for 50 years. Opposed only by the neanderthal right.

    1. Like Joe Biden in the 90’s?

  20. I guess some commies aren’t all bad — assuming he’d really follow through.

  21. Asset seizure without charging a crime should stop immediately. This is pure abuse of power and property rights. But since many state and local government are going broke due to socialist promises going underfunded, like pension plans, the practice will continue and even your life will be in danger. Bernie would be better served as a colonel Sanders chicken pusher.

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