Quandary for 2020 Democrats: Which Criminal Justice Changes Get Priority?

Criminal justice has become a rare point of bipartisan consensus in recent years, leading to the passage in 2018 of the First Step Act, which expanded early-release programs, increased job training and changed mandatory minimums for nonviolent drug offenses. And that bill, a breakthrough at the time, has now become a floor.

The First Step Act “is now the marker of what a conservative reform is,” said Inimai M. Chettiar, legislative and policy director at the Justice Action Network. “So you see all of these candidates going way beyond that.”

Because most of the candidates support similarly expansive suites of policies, the survey pushed them to do something few politicians want to do: to grapple with the reality that presidents rarely pass an entire agenda in one fell swoop, and to identify the specific components of their plans that they believe will make the biggest difference.

Mr. Sanders and Ms. Warren said their first executive actions on criminal justice would be to end the federal use of private prisons, while Mr. Biden and Mr. Bloomberg said theirs would be to repeal directives from former Attorney General Jeff Sessions that require federal prosecutors to seek the harshest possible penalties.

Asked for their top priority among several bipartisan bills now in Congress, Mr. Biden and Mr. Bloomberg chose the REAL Act, which would let prisoners receive Pell grants for higher education. Ms. Warren’s priority was the Smarter Sentencing Act, which would reduce mandatory minimums for drug possession, while Ms. Klobuchar chose the For the People Act, which would restore voting rights for former prisoners.

But some candidates declined to identify priorities.

Asked about her first executive action, Ms. Klobuchar named several. In response to the question, “What is the first criminal justice reform bill that you would put before Congress as president,” Mr. Sanders listed 17 proposals that he said he would include in a comprehensive bill.

If elected, he wrote, he would “work with states to enact comprehensive criminal justice reform at all levels to cut the national prison population in half and end mass incarceration by abolishing three-strikes laws and mandatory minimum sentences, as well as expanding the use of alternatives to detention, reinstating a federal parole system and ending truth-in-sentencing.” (Truth in sentencing is a policy that limits parole, meaning more people are incarcerated for their full sentences.)

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