Columbia, SC — Bernie Sanders and Ben Carson shared a stage at a historically black university in Columbia, South Carolina on Saturday to discuss criminal justice reform. But that’s about where the similarities ended.
While the two men — both currently polling in second place in their party’s primary — answered similar questions before the black audience at the Presidential Justice Forum, hosted by the bipartisan 2020 Club, their proposals for police and criminal justice reform showed just how different their presidencies would be.
Sanders detailed his comprehensive proposals to reform the justice system, including a plan to end mandatory minimum sentences and to establish a federal police training program to end the crisis of unarmed black men and women being killed by police.
People must do more than just echo the phrase Black Lives Matter.
“The Black Lives Matter movement, which has risen in response to these deaths, has done a needed and commendable job in raising public awareness of this issue,” he said, before listing some of the names of black men and women who’s deaths have become part of the national dialogue.
“But people must do more than just echo the phrase Black Lives Matter,” he continued. “We must put actions behind those words. Actions that will bring about the fundamental reform that is needed in the face of this crisis.”
Meanwhile, Carson, who told the audience that he’s “still waiting for the evidence” of racial biases in policing, spent most of his time at the forum discussing his childhood and the values he believes black Americans have lost since the times of slavery and segregation. He provided few actual policies he would promote to reform the justice system or to improve poverty.
The only concrete proposal he presented was to encourage Americans to bring investments abroad back into the country to invest them in high-poverty communities. When asked by a reporter if he could name other reforms he would introduce if that idea failed, he had no response other than an assurance that it would work.
While Sanders discussed systemic racism in police departments and on college campuses, Carson was hesitant to admit that institutional racism exists. “If it exists, expose it,” he told reporters. “That’s your best defense.”
To have progress really happen, you need to have everyone at the table.
One of the only points the candidates agreed on was that voting rights should be restored to ex-felons. While Sanders repeated his argument that disenfranchising so many black people is a major civil rights issue, Carson said people should be able to vote again once they have “paid their debts to society.”
Ashley Bell, a former George county commissioner and co-chair of the 2020 Club, said that Sanders resonated with the audience and won the forum’s straw poll “hands down.”
He told ThinkProgress that his organization, the “only bi-partisan group of African Americans in the country right now,” will continue to invite candidates from both parties to speak about criminal justice and to present differing viewpoints on criminal justice.
“To have progress really happen, you need to have everyone at the table.”