Sanders, now a reformer, once boasted of being tough on crime

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·Senior National Affairs Reporter
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Bernie Sanders speaks to supporters in Des Moines, Iowa, on caucus night. (Photo: Khue Bui for Yahoo News)

Sen. Bernie Sanders twice brought up his support for reforming the criminal justice system in the Democratic town hall Wednesday night, highlighting his position on an issue that he has said he believes will resonate with minority voters.

“There will be no president that will fight harder to end institutional racism than I will and we have to reform a very, very broken justice system,” Sanders said at the New Hampshire town hall, adding that he would also make police departments more accountable and require retraining in use of lethal force.

Sanders has long spoken against the folly of putting more people in prison while ignoring the social problems that cause crime. But the senator from Vermont voted for a bill that is now widely considered by criminal justice reform advocates to epitomize the “tough on crime” approach that led to the explosion of prison populations in the 1990s.

The Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, which later passed in a different form as the Omnibus Crime Bill of 1994 (Sanders voted for both), expanded the death penalty and offered incentives to states to lengthen prison sentences. These “truth in sentencing” laws contributed to the era of mass incarceration that Sanders now says he deplores.

“The common wisdom was to lock them up and throw away the key,” said Inimai Chettiar, director of the justice program at the Brennan Center at New York University Law School. “Sanders’ evolution is similar to that of many mainstream politicians on both sides.”

That includes Sanders’ rival Hillary Clinton, who was also a supporter of the Crime Act as first lady. It was a legislative priority of her husband’s, during a time when Democrats and Republicans were hoping to win votes by addressing constituents’ concerns about the “epidemic” of crack cocaine and violent crime. (Bill Clinton recently apologized for his role in contributing to mass incarceration.)

But Clinton began rethinking her criminal justice reform platform long before Sanders appears to have done so.

“At the time, there were reasons why the Congress wanted to push through a certain set of penalties and increase prison construction, and there was a lot of support for that across a lot of communities,” Clinton said at the Black & Brown Forum in 2007 while on the campaign trail in Iowa. “It’s hard to remember now but the crime rate in the early 1990s was very high. But we’ve got to take stock now of the consequences, so that’s why I want to have a thorough review of all of the penalties, of all the kinds of sentencing, and more importantly, start having more diversion and having more second-chance programs.”

Sanders spoke eloquently about why he was conflicted about the crime bill before he voted for it in 1994.

“… It is also my view that, through the neglect of our government and through a grossly irrational set of priorities, we are dooming tens of millions of young people to a future of bitterness, misery, hopelessness, drugs, crime and violence,” Sanders said.

But he did vote for it, and as recently as 2006 touted this fact in a section of his website labeled “Bernie Sanders’ strong record of supporting tough on crime legislation.” The page also included his votes for funding for antidrug and other crime programs. In 1995, Sanders also voted against a bill whose aim was to “demilitarize” the police.

Sanders was slower than Clinton to release a criminal justice reform platform after he declared he was running for the Democratic nomination in April. The senator, like his rivals, was confronted over the summer by Black Lives Matter protesters, who were pushing the candidates to address police use of force and other racial justice issues. In August, Sanders met with Black Lives Matter representatives and a month later introduced legislation to ban private prisons, which have been accused of mistreating inmates. They incarcerate less than 10 percent of the nation’s prisoners.

Clinton laid out her criminal justice reform agenda in April, right before Sanders threw his hat in the ring.

“Hillary came out in favor of ending mass incarceration and giving a very strong speech on it early on in her campaign, and I think from the outside it seemed like Sanders didn’t start doing that until Black Lives Matter confronted him about it,” said Chettiar.

Both candidates did move away from the ’90s tough-on-crime era votes. Sanders and Clinton supported narrowing the gap between sentences for crack and powder cocaine, which disproportionately affected black offenders. And Sanders has said he believes his record on the issue will help attract minority voters, who in Iowa appeared to break significantly for Clinton.

“When the African-American community becomes familiar with my congressional record and with our agenda, and with our views on the economy, and criminal justice — just as the general population has become more supportive, so will the African-American community, so will the Latino community,” Sanders said in a debate last month.

The Sanders campaign did not return several requests for comment on how his views have evolved over the years and why he originally supported the 1994 bill.

“While the 1994 crime bill may have been aimed at dealing with soaring crime rates and a vicious crack epidemic that was destroying communities, Hillary Clinton has acknowledged its overly harsh and racially disproportionate impacts for years and, as a senator worked for real reform, like ending racial profiling, eliminating the crack-cocaine sentencing disparity and addressing felony disenfranchisement,” Clinton spokeswoman Karen Finney said in an email.

Sanders frequently criticizes Clinton for flip-flopping on issues, including the Keystone pipeline. “I have been fairly consistent my entire political life. Some people say I’m kind of boring because I have been saying the same thing for 30 years,” he said on MSNBC last month.

He may have been saying it, but he wasn’t always voting it.