Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren sought to distinguish herself from two of her top rivals for the Democratic presidential nomination as she unveiled her plan Tuesday to reform the nation’s criminal justice system.
As part of a wide-ranging and lengthy proposal, Warren called for the reform of the now controversial 1994 crime bill – which 2020 Democratic front-runner and former Vice president Joe Biden helped write as a senator from Delaware a quarter-century ago.
Warren also called for the federal government to prod states, cities, counties and towns to decriminalize school truancy – which is opposite of the stiffer penalties another rival, California Sen. Kamala Harris, pushed during her years as San Francisco district attorney and California attorney general.
"The 1994 crime bill exacerbated incarceration rates in this country, punishing people more severely for even minor infractions, and limiting discretion in charging and sentencing in our judicial system,” Warren argued in a Medium post outlining her plan.
She emphasized that such a "tough on crime" approach “was wrong, it was a mistake, and it needs to be repealed."
"There are some sections of law, like those relating to domestic violence, that should be retained — but the bulk of the law must go,” she said.
Other rivals for the nomination – including Harris and Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey – have repeatedly criticized Biden for his involvement in the 1994 crime bill that was signed into law by then-President Bill Clinton. Biden has long highlighted his role in helping write the law, which at the time was the largest anti-crime bill in the nation’s history. The measure provided for thousands of new police officers, millions of dollars to fund prevention programs and billions of dollars to build new prisons.
But the law has long been criticized by Democrats, who blame the measure for spiking incarcerations, particularly among minorities, due to a mandatory life sentence policy for repeat offenders.
Facing jabs from numerous rivals over the law, Biden has repeatedly defended many other aspects of the measure, including crediting the law’s gun control provisions – including the assault weapons ban – which he said helped him “beat the NRA.”
But Biden’s criminal justice plan – which he released earlier this summer – would reverse the stricter sentence terms for crack versus powder cocaine that were implemented by the 1994 law.
In her plan, Warren also vowed to break what she described as the “school-to-prison pipeline.”
Lamenting that “schools increasingly rely on police officers to carry out discipline while neglecting services that are critical to the well being of students,” she said “at least fourteen million students attend schools with a police officer but without a single counselor, social worker, psychologist, or nurse.”
Warren urged that the federal government push the states and localities to decriminalize truancy and “instead increase the number of school mental health personnel and provide schools with resources to train teachers and administrators in positive behavioral interventions, trauma-informed alternative discipline practices, and implicit bias to limit suspensions, expulsions, and minor-infraction arrests.”
Truancy laws – punishment for students who repeatedly are absent from school – vary across the country with fines and even incarceration in some places for parents or children.
Harris’ prosecutorial record in pushing for truancy prosecution of parents has come up repeatedly during the 2020 campaign.
Another 2020 Democratic presidential contender – former Rep. Beto O’Rourke of Texas – has also called for decriminalizing truancy.
Warren’s criminal reform proposals also call for, among other things, the decriminalization of marijuana and ending a directive from the Justice Department under President Trump requiring federal prosecutors to seek maximum prison terms.
After releasing her plan, Warren held a "Criminal Justice Reform Roundtable" later Tuesday morning in Minneapolis. Warren unveiled her proposals just two days after another leading progressive rival for the nomination, Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, unwrapped his criminal justice reform plan.