Sanders’s Promotion of Criminal Justice Reform Marginalized by Democrats

August 17, 2020 Updated: August 18, 2020


The one admirable element of Sen. Bernie Sanders’s (I-Vt.) proposed revolution for the people was his promise of reform of the U.S. criminal justice system. If this was all he had ever done, it would’ve entitled Sanders to a respected position in the history of American congressional reformers.

This is a type of politician that is out of fashion in the United States and was never as easily accommodated in the American system as it has been in the British system. In the larger Parliament of the United Kingdom (650 members), there’s generally room for some outspoken independent crusaders for various causes who can hold their districts in all political seasons.

Among the better known were William Wilberforce (1759–1833), who led the battle against the slave trade; the Earl of Shaftesbury (1801–1885), who fought to alleviate the poverty created by the Industrial Revolution; and Richard Cobden (1804–1865) and John Bright (1811–1889), who fought for cheaper bread, freer trade, and electoral reform. In the late 20th century, Enoch Powell on the right and Anthony Wedgwood Benn on the left would qualify in this category.

In the United States, the closest there has been to such people were relatively independent-minded senators in the first third of the 20th century, such as Robert La Follette and George Norris, leaders of the Progressive movement seeking public ownership of electricity and a wide range of reforms.

La Follette carried his home state of Wisconsin in 1924 when he ran as Progressive candidate for president against Calvin Coolidge and John W. Davis. (One of the minor ironies of U.S. political lore is that the career of the successor to the La Follette dynasty in Wisconsin, Robert La Follette Jr., ended at the hands of the diametrically opposite Joseph R. McCarthy by 5,000 votes in the Senate election of 1946.)

Independent voices such as these have been generally muffled in the almost impenetrable two-party system of the United States. It’s in this respect that Sanders’s achievement in persisting electorally for decades as a socialist, and as a linguistically obvious migrant to Vermont from Brooklyn, managed to carry a candle of independent thinking all the way to the U.S. Senate and to maintain it there.

Plea Bargaining

Sanders has never ceased to denounce the perversion of the American plea-bargaining system, by which prosecutors single out people close to targeted individuals, threaten them with spurious indictments if they can’t jog their memories to provide damaging evidence against the defendant, and promise them immunity from prosecution for perjury in exchange for such evidence.

This is a loathsome and notorious practice known to everyone with any acquaintance with the legal system of the United States, but it is only sporadically criticized by a few brave souls scattered among the political, legal, and judicial communities.

Some have been more vocal than I have in opposing most of Sanders’s socialist message, but none has been more consistent in praising his proposals for legal reform. The plea bargain, as it has evolved, is chiefly responsible for the fact that the United States has 6 to 12 times as many incarcerated people per capita as other comparable prosperous democracies: Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Japan, and the United Kingdom.

That’s why the United States has 5 percent of the world’s population and 25 percent of the world’s incarcerated people. It’s a shocking and disgraceful state of affairs, and prosecutors in Great Britain and Canada who behave as prosecutors in the United States routinely do would be disbarred for life, and for cause.

While the plea bargain is the worst perversion of the system of justice envisioned by the authors of the Bill of Rights, it’s far from the only problem. Other factors that have made the U.S. criminal justice system a conveyor belt to the bloated and corrupt prison system of the country include the vitiation of the Fifth, Sixth, and Eighth Amendment guarantees of a grand jury (to guard against abusive indictments), due process, no seizure of property without just compensation, a speedy trial and impartial jury, counsel of choice, reasonable bail, and avoidance of cruel and unusual punishment.

As anyone familiar with the workings of the U.S. criminal justice system is aware, these constitutional promises have all been substantially put to the shredder while the overpraised justices of the Supreme Court for the last 50 years sat on their high bench like suet puddings, self-laudatorily debating legal issues of undoubted importance but of much less influence on the character and integrity of American society and the freedom of its people than the dismemberment of the Bill of Rights.

Dashed Hopes

Most of Sanders’s socialist message is archaic nonsense, emanating implausibly from the sylvan state of Vermont in the rough cadences of an Ebbets Field hot dog vendor, but for bringing these issues of criminal justice reform forcefully to the attention of the nation, he’s earned the homage of all Americans.

Unfortunately, in working out the Biden–Sanders Unity Agreement, the legal section was delegated to former Attorney General Eric Holder, one of the most egregiously abusive prosecutors in American history and also one of the most shamelessly partisan prosecutors as well. The best he could manage in legal reform was a pallid and tepid inquiry into avoidance of prosecutorial abuses.

The vice presidential nomination of Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) has dashed any hopes that might have existed that the official Democrat position this year might include any relief for the over-prosecuted millions who have been ground to powder among the 40 million ostensible felons in the United States (including, for these purposes, people who fail breathalyzer tests and were guilty of disorderly conduct many years earlier).

Harris was a maximum-sentence prosecutor in California who frequently condoned and herself engaged in the most dubious practices to secure convictions, including more than 1,000 carceral sentences for the mere use of marijuana, an offense she acknowledges that she engaged in herself. It’s very difficult to imagine that any administration in which Harris would exercise the influence that is almost assured by the fragile condition of this presidential nominee will produce anything useful in penal or legal reform.

It’s regrettable, but indicative of the low priority of human rights in the political forum of the contemporary American left, that Sanders carried almost none of his commendable fervor for legal reform into the unity agreement.

Yet he succeeded in gaining approval of his ludicrous proposals for tax increases; unaffordable medical care; the Green Terror; reinforcement of the monopoly of the teachers’ unions and the continued dumbing down of the youth of the nation; continued prostration of the Treasury to the destructive fires of academic ignorance and subversion; open borders and entire access of illegal migrants to the welfare, health, and education systems; a renewed green light for a nuclear-armed Iran; and the general appeasement of “peaceful protesters” who burn down and pillage the centers of U.S. cities.

Sanders is more concerned with Marxist economics than with human rights, and whatever ember of criminal justice reform was still glowing at the conclusion of the unity agreement has been crushed by the hobnailed jackboot of the Torquemada of San Francisco, Harris, reliably hard-line leftist though she is in all other discernible respects.

Conrad Black has been one of Canada’s most prominent financiers for 40 years, and was one of the leading newspaper publishers in the world. He’s the author of authoritative biographies of Franklin D. Roosevelt and Richard Nixon, and, most recently “Donald J. Trump: A President Like No Other,” which is about to be republished in updated form.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.