How Cory Booker Could Redefine The Way Candidates Talk About Crime

In an address on the March on Washington’s 50th anniversary confronting the civil rights issues America faces going forward, Newark Mayor and Senate candidate Cory Booker (D) did something few other candidates for national office have done. He released an overarching proposal for reforming our criminal justice system that wasn’t about being tough-on-crime. Instead, he focused on arresting and incarcerating less low-level offenders, and on facilitating a successful transition for the 1.6 million inmates from U.S. prisons back into American society.

“As mayor of Newark, I have watched as my police arrest, re-arrest, and then re-arrest again, sending the same person for another trip through a revolving door system that not only largely fails to rehabilitate, but too often makes re-offending commonplace and most definitely is not helping to make our communities safer,” he said in a report released Wednesday and posted prominently on his Senate campaign website.

The comprehensive plan calls for reform of almost every major criminal justice issue, from prosecution and sentencing policies, to rehabilitation programs and new investment in re-entry. Both in tone and in scope, the proposal is a signal that attitudes toward criminal justice reform are changing.

“For many years it was bad news for reform if crime became an issue in a given campaign,” Jeremy Haile, federal advocacy counsel at the Sentencing Project, told ThinkProgress. Last year, the Sentencing Project noted that the Democratic and Republican party platforms included some positions on criminal justice reform. But Haile points out that even former Sen. Jim Webb (D-VA), who took on criminal justice reform with vigor once he was in the Senate, scarcely mentioned the issue during the campaign, because any talk of arresting, convicting, or incarcerating less would be viewed as soft-on-crime.


In the past few months, we’ve seen that changing. U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder announced a major change to his law enforcement priorities that would seek to lower incarceration rates, without major blow-back. Bills have been introduced in both houses of Congress to reform harsh mandatory minimum sentences, which have garnered unlikely support from the American Legislative Exchange Council and the world’s largest association for correctional officers. Judges and prosecutors had already been calling for sentencing reform. And then there are moves to scale back federal enforcement of marijuana prohibition. Senate Judiciary Chair Patrick Leahy (D-VT) announced he’ll hold a hearing on that in September.

Booker’s proposal addresses these issues and many others. Rather than prioritize one area of focus, he catalogs a laundry list of real and urgent problems that need intervention at the federal level, writing:

We waste massive amounts of money on strategies that make our communities less, not more, safe. We squander human potential. We emphasize punishment over rehabilitation for low-level, non-violent crimes. We have created a system that fosters disparate racial and socio-economic impacts. Even more disturbing are the impacts on inmates’ children. Not only do they lose their incarcerated parent’s income and other direct support, but innocent children who have one or both of their parents in prison also suffer trauma, social stigma, and destruction of their familial relationships. In fact, a national, longitudinal study of approximately 5,000 children born between 1998 and 2000 found that children whose fathers were incarcerated were four times more likely to face contact with the child welfare system

On that note, his proposed reforms include:

  • Facilitate a national conversation about the decriminalization of marijuana.
  • Eliminate mandatory minimum sentences for low-level drug reforms. This proposal mirrors Attorney General Eric Holder’s recent announcement that he would order his prosecutors not to seek mandatory minimum sentence for certain low-level offenders. Bills proposed in both houses of Congress likewise propose reform to statutory minimum sentences.
  • Eliminate the disparity between crack and cocaine sentences. In 2010, Congress reduced a racially discriminatory disparity between sentences for crack cocaine and powder cocaine from 100-to-1 to 18-to-1.
  • Change prosecutor policy, so that they consider racial and ethnic biases, and so their success is measured by metrics other than numbers of convictions or harsh sentences.
  • Reform prisons by incorporating better programs for rehabilitation, drug treatment programs, and the elimination of private prisons.
  • Invest in programs to ease re-entry for the inordinate number of Americans who have spent time behind bars, including providing those released from prison with IDs, eliminating employment barriers for those with convictions, offering transitional employment, and increasing funding for prison-based re-entry programs through the Second Chance Act.
  • Facilitate communication with families by improving policies for prison phone calls, and easing visitation.

New Jersey’s incarceration demographics are similar to much of the United States. While blacks make up 14 percent of that state’s population, they make up 60 percent of the state’s prisons, a statistic Booker cites in choosing the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington to announce his plan for civil rights reform. “These are things that may not be popular,” he said, “but are urgent.”