BATON ROUGE, La. – U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders said on Saturday that the “continuing struggle for racial justice in America” must confront the “horrible facts” of how African-Americans are treated by the criminal justice system in the United States.
In remarks prepared for a Southern Christian Leadership Conference meeting here tonight, Sanders said one in four African-American males born today is likely to spend time behind bars. He called it an “unspeakable tragedy” that blacks are imprisoned at six times the rate of whites.
He cited a Department of Justice study which found that blacks are three times more likely to be searched during a traffic stop than white motorists. He said African-Americans are twice as likely to be arrested and nearly four times as likely to experience the use of force during encounters with police.
African-Americans make up two-fifths of all young people in prisons, he added. African-American women are three times more likely than white women to be incarcerated. Upon conviction for a crime, black offenders receive 10 percent longer sentences than whites for the same crimes. Minorities, moreover, are sentenced to death at significantly higher rates than whites, added Sanders, a capital punishment opponent.
“Of course the majority of people of color are trying to work hard, play by the rules and raise their children,” Sanders added. “But there are neighborhoods where mothers are afraid to let their children outside for fear of gang violence and drugs. And they are also afraid of their children being targeted by the police because of the color of their skin. No person should have to worry that a routine interaction with law enforcement will end in violence or death.”
The Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., the first president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, said law and order exist for the purpose of establishing justice, Sanders recalled. But today, the senator said, “too many African-Americans and other minorities find themselves subjected to a system that treats citizens who have not committed crimes like criminals. A growing number of communities do not trust the police and police have become disconnected from the communities they are sworn to protect.”
He cited the deaths in police custody of Sandra Bland, Michael Brown, Rekia Boyd, Eric Garner, Walter Scott, Freddie Gray, Tamir Rice. “We know their names. Each of them died unarmed at the hands of police officers or in police custody. The chants are growing louder. People are angry; I am angry; and people have a right to be angry. Violence and brutality of any kind – particularly at the hands of law enforcement sworn to protect and serve our communities – is unacceptable and must not be tolerated,” he said.
“Black lives do matter,” Sanders said in detailing a series of reforms. He called for shifting from militarized local police forces to more community policing like he put in place as the mayor of Burlington, Vermont. The federal government should help local law enforcement agencies reform how police officers are trained, he said, and body cameras should be provided for law enforcement agencies to create a record of police encounters with citizens. States and local governments should get more U.S. Justice Department grant support to encourage those initiatives, he said, but police departments which don’t reform should have federal funding slashed.
He said police and prosecutors should not be judged by how many people are locked away. For people whose crimes landed them in jail, there must be a path back from prison. There should be education and skills-training for those who are incarcerated. And prisons should not be packed with non-violent young Americans who do not pose a serious threat to our society. “It is an international embarrassment that we have more people locked up in jail than any other country on earth – more than even the Communist totalitarian state of China. That has got to end,” Sanders said.
Linking racial justice with economic justice, Sanders said minorities would benefit from programs to reduce poverty and lift up the middle class. He proposed, for example, raising the minimum hourly wage to $15, which he called for in a Senate bill introduced on Wednesday. He cited the need to pass a youth jobs bill, which he introduced with Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.), and argued that putting millions of Americans back to work rebuilding roads and bridges would create millions of decent-paying jobs.
King, the great civil rights leader, drew a connection between racial discrimination and economic issues. He cited King’s view that the problem in the United States was structural. “This country has socialism for the rich, rugged individualism for the poor,” King once declared.
To read the complete text of the prepared remarks, click here.