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Sen. Kamala Harris discussed criminal justice reform before an audience of formerly incarcerated people at a presidential town hall at Eastern State Penitentiary Historic Site in Philadelphia.
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Democratic Candidates Face Questions Seldom Heard On Campaign Trail

They defend their criminal justice records and tout proposals at nation’s first town hall held by formerly incarcerated people.

Democratic presidential candidates Kamala Harris, Cory Booker and Tom Steyer faced criminal justice questions Monday that are seldom mentioned on the campaign trail, including sentencing reform for people convicted of violent crimes, civil rights for those coming out of prison and restorative justice, during the nation’s first candidate town hall organized by formerly incarcerated people.

Harris vowed to end the use of solitary confinement and to conduct an audit to examine spending—and who is profiting—in prisons. Steyer made his most extensive comments yet about criminal justice reform, saying he was opposed to mandatory minimums and automatic sentence enhancements. Booker said he would create incentives for local legislatures to encourage alternatives to incarceration.

The candidates also had to address some of their past actions about criminal justice.

Harris faced questions about her record as a prosecutor in San Francisco and later as California’s attorney general, and whether she had been committed enough to “progressive prosecution.” She defended her actions, positioning herself as the only Democratic candidate who has taken tangible steps toward “reforming the criminal justice system.” The senator pointed to her creation of a reentry and job training program, for example.

Harris’s critics say she opted for the most politically palatable programs while shying away from more substantive approaches, like declining to prosecute more low-level offenses, that could have reduced the number sent to prison each year in California.

Daryl Atkinson, co-director of Forward Justice, a policy and legal organization supporting racial and economic justice in the South, pressed Booker on the senator’s support of giving the right to vote to people in prison, but only those convicted of non-violent crimes. Booker argued there’s not enough public support for giving the vote to those in prison for violent offenses, and he did not want to lose the ability to accomplish other things.

“I will not sacrifice progress on the altar of purity on issues,” Booker said as he made a case for political pragmatism.

Steyer, who has made his fortune managing a hedge fund, fielded questions about his fund having invested in private prison companies. Steyer sold the fund’s stake in Corrections Corporation of America earlier this year.

“I made a mistake,” he said. “I sold it.”

Harris took the stage first, fielding questions from Ari Melber, a journalist at MSNBC, and Vivian Nixon, executive director of College and Community Fellowship, a non-profit that helps formerly incarcerated women earn college degrees.

As senator, Harris has been a vocal critic of President Trump’s First Step legislation, calling it a “compromise of a compromise.” The act granted early release for thousands of non-violent drug offenders. Harris said Monday that did not go far enough. “You took a step, but you just learned how to walk,” she said. “We need the plan for step ten.”

She said on day one as president, she would conduct a comprehensive audit of the criminal justice system to understand areas for reform. Her plan also includes allocating federal funding to help local counties clear people’s criminal records, removing clemency from the Department of Justice and legalizing marijuana.

Booker used the first question to criticize the candidates who were not in attendance, saying he attends rallies across the country in which more Democratic hopefuls show up. “I am surprised and angry,” he said. “This is a chance to have a conversation with formerly incarcerated people and we have three candidates showing up. That is unacceptable.”

Instead Booker made clear that he believes “the prison population should be cut more than in half, and folks should have not had their voting rights taken away in the first place.”

Booker has made criminal justice a staple of his time in the Senate. He sponsored the First Step Act, and introduced the Next Step Act, which would eliminate mandatory minimums and restore voting rights for people with felony convictions. He has also introduced legislation to legalize marijuana and raise the age at which children can be tried as adults.

As president Booker said he would hold opioid companies accountable for their role in perpetuating the country’s addiction crisis and support mass expungement of criminal records of people convicted of marijuana possession. “Do not come and talk about legalization, if you are not talking in the same breath about expunging people’s record,” he said.

Critics often point to Booker’s time as mayor of Newark, N.J., when the city’s police department was under investigation by the Justice Department, and Booker acknowledged had not done enough to root out police misconduct. Asked how he would reform the nation’s police departments, Booker said he would enact the recommendations in President Obama’s task force on 21st Century policing into law. The group called for a broad swath of changes, including better data collection around the use of force and the elimination of policies that incentivize officers to make more arrests and stops.

Earlier this year, Booker and Harris released plans outlining how they would address mass incarceration, but Steyer had primarily campaigned on climate change and impeaching Trump. He is one of a handful of Democratic candidates that has not released a comprehensive criminal justice reform plan.

Steyer told the audience his connection to this issue is personal: his mother taught reading to inmates at the Brooklyn House of Detention and his wife volunteers at San Quentin in their home state of California. He also touted his involvement in the campaign to end cash bail and automatic sentence enhancements in California.

Steyer vowed to support legislation that would help formerly incarcerated people get jobs and housing, eliminating the school to prison pipeline and addressing the racist underpinnings of America’s criminal justice system.

Moderator DeAnna Hoskins grilled Steyer on whether or not he would offer formerly incarcerated people a special legal status to prevent discrimination in housing and in the workplace. Steyer said such discrimination is wrong and that he would work to ensure people have access to their full rights as citizens. But he did not say whether he’d support making formerly incarcerated people a protected group under the law to make such unfair treatment illegal.

At the end of the back and forth, Steyer reflected on how important it is to hear from people directly affected to help inform his policy.

“The way to get the right policy is to go to the community that is affected,” Steyer said. “You’ve got to get down to the community, to the people who live it.”

New Orleans-based criminal justice advocacy organization Voters Organized to Educate hosted the event, presented by The Marshall Project and digital partner NowThis News. The town hall, held at Eastern State Penitentiary, a former prison in Philadelphia, opened with a panel discussion of formerly incarcerated people who’ve been instrumental in passing landmark criminal justice legislation across the country.

Highlights included ending the shackling of pregnant prisoners during childbirth, protecting parental rights for incarcerated mothers, restoring voting rights for some prisoners in Alabama, restoring voting rights for some people on probation and parole in Louisiana and eliminating non-unanimous jury decisions in Louisiana.

Executive Director of VOTE, Norris Henderson, opened the town hall remarking on the reasons for hosting the event in Eastern State Penitentiary, the site of a former prison.

“This was America’s first experience with mass incarceration,” Henderson said. “The first prison built in America.”

Eastern State Penitentiary opened in 1829 and was home to notorious prisoners, such as bank robber “Slick Willie” Sutton and Al “Scarface” Capone. Officials built the prison to realize a controversial theory of punishment in which solitary confinement and physical labor was thought to produce remorse in the hearts of inmates.

Henderson closed the town hall reminding participants why it is important to have candidates show up for criminal justice forums.

“If they can’t show up for us in October of 2019,” he said, “we won’t show up for them in November 2020.”