Democrats Pledge Criminal Justice Reform at South Carolina Forum

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., speaks at the Blue Jamboree on Oct. 5, 2019, in North Charleston, S.C. (AP Photo/Meg Kinnard)

COLUMBIA, S.C. (CN) – Top Democratic presidential candidates revealed similar ideas for rebuilding America’s criminal justice system that they said places a disproportionate amount of black Americans in prison during a forum in South Carolina Saturday.

The three-day-long Second Step Presidential Justice Forum, which was sponsored by the 20/20 Bipartisan Justice Center, began Friday on the campus of Columbia’s historically black Benedict College.

Each of the six Democrats who spoke in the Palmetto State on Saturday acknowledged racial disparities that permeate throughout the criminal justice system. The presidential hopefuls pointed to a numerous array of social and economic injustices that they say contribute to a large amount of black Americans and minority citizens becoming incarcerated.

Senator Kamala Harris announced on Friday that she would boycott the event after its sponsor gave President Donald Trump an award that evening for passing the First Step Act last year.

The California senator said she did not want to take part in the “papering over” of Trump’s record of “decades of celebrating mass incarceration, pushing the death penalty for innocent Black Americans, rolling back police accountability measures and racist behavior that puts people’s lives at risk.”

Trump condemned Harris’ decision to protest, tweeting that the unemployment numbers under his administration and his signing of the First Step Act into law is more than the senator “will ever be able to do for African Americans.”

On Friday, some people who were released early from prison under the First Step Act accompanied Trump on the stage and applauded his signing of the bipartisan bill into law.

Many candidates who spoke during Saturday’s portion of the forum, like former Vice President Joe Biden and South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, highlighted the need for many more steps to occur in order to keep citizens out of prison and to repair communities that have been damaged by mass incarceration.

It was in the mayor’s hometown in June that an officer shot Eric Logan.

When asked on Saturday what he learned from the fatal shooting by South Bend Police Sgt. Ryan O’Neill, Buttigieg said that incentivizing a diversified police force on the federal level is a good start. Along with other Democrats on Saturday, Buttigieg said inequities seen in America’s incarcerated track back to youth and do not always revolve directly around policing.

“It is a myth that locking people up makes us safe,” he said on Saturday.

Harris ended up speaking about justice reform during her allotted time slot on Saturday afternoon— after the event sponsor that awarded the president was removed. That was not before she publicly responded to Trump’s claims.

“My whole life I’ve fought for justice and for the people — something you’d know nothing about. The only part of criminal justice you can claim credit for is the “criminal” part,” Harris responded in a tweet.

Senator Harris, like Benedict College students who asked questions during Q&A sessions with candidates on Saturday, also attended a historically black college.

“This is somebody who has disrespected the voices that have been present for decades about the need for reform of this system — the people who have marched for justice in this system, the people who have sacrificed to create leadership around justice in this system,” Harris said of President Trump on Saturday.

Harris concurred with Buttigieg’s statement concerning imprisonment, stating that better healthcare, financial opportunities, affordable housing and education funding can result in the proactive diminishing of the number of incarcerated Americans.

“The goal should be healthy communities, because when you have healthy communities, you have safe communities,” she said.

She added that 70% of incarcerated Americans are high school dropouts, and that she plans to implement higher federal funding for teacher pay and training, as well as investment in broadband accessibility across rural areas.

The forum, according to the Bipartisan Justice Center, is meant to give candidates from across isles the chance to come together on the issues.

There is still a presidential race to be won, and black voters in South Carolina are critical.

Biden is leading in the state among Democratic voters by a large margin, but 19% of black residents who are expected to vote in the Democratic primaries are undecided, according to a Monmouth University poll released last week.

On Saturday, the front-runner called for transparency in law enforcement data reporting.

Biden expressed a similar holistic-type approach to criminal justice reform outlined by the other candidates who spoke before him.

“My plan ensures 100% of formerly incarcerated individuals have housing,” he said, for example, noting that those released from prison have a much higher rate of returning if they can’t secure adequate housing.

Each of Saturday’s candidates, including New Jersey Senator Cory Booker and Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, said they aim to reduce the amount of unjustly incarcerated individuals in America by legalizing marijuana and funding better mental health services.

The forum continues on Sunday with speeches by Senator Elizabeth Warren, Julian Castro and Representative Tulsi Gabbard.

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