Trump and 2020 Democrats brand themselves criminal justice reformers

(Reuters) - Donald Trump and the Democrats hoping to unseat him as president all say they want to reform the criminal justice system in the United States, which held 2.3 million people behind bars in 2019

FILE PHOTO: U.S. President Donald Trump talks to reporters as he departs for travel to New Orleans, Louisiana from the South Lawn of the White House in Washington, U.S., January 13, 2020. REUTERS/Leah Millis/File Photo

Here is a look at the criminal justice platforms for leading Democrats running for the presidential nomination as well as Trump’s record during his first term in office.


The Republican president signed into law the First Step Act, which reduced mandatory minimum sentences, required officials to try to place inmates in prisons near family, expanded drug treatment programs for prisoners and parolees, and allowed some federal prisoners to finish their sentences early with good behavior.

The measure expanded a 2010 law that reduced higher penalties for possession of crack cocaine, a drug used more by the poor and minorities, than for powder cocaine, used more by the wealthy.

Still, Democrats accuse the Trump administration of lax oversight over local police departments accused of civil rights violations and criticize Trump’s endorsement of the death penalty and other policies that disproportionately affect minorities.

Trump has also sought to re-start executions of federal death row inmates, but the request was rejected by the U.S. Supreme Court in December.


Biden, who served as vice president under former U.S. President Barack Obama, proposed eliminating prison sentences for drug use, decriminalizing marijuana and eliminating sentencing disparities for offenses involving crack and powder cocaine.

He also would eliminate the death penalty. He promises to end mandatory sentencing that takes discretion away from judges, eliminate private prisons and end the federal system of cash bail, under which defendants who cannot afford to pay must await trial in jail.

Biden also has pledged to reform the juvenile justice system, including keeping youths from being incarcerated with adults. He plans efforts to eliminate barriers for felons re-entering society from prison, including restrictions on allowing them to receive food stamps, educational Pell grants and housing support.


Sanders, a U.S. senator from Vermont, wants to ban for-profit prisons, abolish the death penalty and tighten rules and penalties for police misconduct.

His plan would end 1990s-era “three strikes and you’re out” laws, which mandated life sentences for people convicted of more than two felonies, even if the third crime is a minor offense.

Sanders says he will change the way police officers are trained and deployed, bringing in social workers or conflict negotiators to defuse dangerous situations and mandating criminal charges against officers who engage in misconduct that violates someone’s civil rights.


Warren, a U.S. senator from Massachusetts, says the United States has “criminalized too many things.” She calls for increasing social services that help young people stay out of prison, decriminalizing truancy and relying on counselors and teachers rather than police officers in schools.

Warren has vowed to push to repeal the 1994 crime bill, which imposed harsh sentences on major and minor crimes alike and removed much of the discretion judges have in deciding who should be incarcerated and for how long. She would also legalize marijuana at the federal level and erase past convictions for use of the drug.


Buttigieg, the former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, focuses his criminal justice plan on the system’s disproportionate impact on African Americans.

His proposal would end prison sentences for drug possession and expand diversion programs aimed at keeping people with mental health and addiction problems out of the criminal justice system.

Buttigieg has pledged to improve rehabilitation services for inmates re-entering society. He also opposes imprisoning people or suspending their drivers’ licenses for failing to pay fines and court costs. He has promised $100 million to states that replace youth prisons with support services, and has proposed additional investment in black communities disproportionately hit by imprisonment.


Klobuchar, a former prosecutor and a U.S. senator from Minnesota, built her criminal justice proposals around a call for providing mental health rather than law enforcement interventions when appropriate, and creating a clemency board to review long sentences and consider releasing many offenders.

She was a co-sponsor of the First Step Act, which eased harsh sentences for many nonviolent crimes. As president, Klobuchar would also further reform the system of requiring mandatory minimum sentences for many crimes, including first-time drug offenses.


Bloomberg, a former mayor of New York City, has been criticized by supporters of criminal justice reform for his onetime embrace of a policy known as stop-and-frisk, which allowed police to detain and search people on the street and disproportionately affected communities of color. Bloomberg in November apologized for the program and called it a mistake, although it was for years an accepted practice during his administration.

In December, Bloomberg decried mass incarceration and vowed to seek alternatives to incarceration for nonviolent defendants awaiting trial and to cut in half the number of juveniles behind bars.


Yang, a businessman, would end the use of for-profit prisons. He would review sentencing laws to bring prison terms in line with what data shows are effective. He also has vowed to investigate racial disparities in the criminal justice system and to better fund programs aimed at reducing recidivism and aiding re-entry to society for people who have completed their terms.


Steyer, a billionaire former hedge fund manager and political activist, reflects the views of most progressive Democrats on criminal justice. He decries the prison system as racist and promises to work to eliminate private prisons, end cash bail and reduce the prison population.

He would create incentives for states to repeal “stand your ground” laws, which allow people to use deadly force for self-defense, even when retreating from the situation would also keep them safe.

Reporting by Trevor Hunnicutt and Sharon Bernstein; Editing by James Oliphant and Daniel Wallis