Beto O’Rourke unveils criminal justice plan

Brittany Shepherd
National Politics Reporter

COLUMBIA, S.C. — Former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke is releasing a blueprint for criminal justice reform that focuses on eliminating mass incarceration and providing rehabilitation of inmates to prevent recidivism, according to a copy of the plan provided to Yahoo News.

“We must connect the dots between mass incarceration and the racism in this country that fueled its rise,” O’Rourke said in a statement to Yahoo News. “We may never be able to undo the damage of this tragic era — in which millions of our fellow Americans have been locked up in the system and locked out of opportunity in our country — but we must do everything we can to begin to make it right. That means ending mass incarceration, investing in rehabilitation, and ensuring the formerly incarcerated have the support, protections and opportunities they need to thrive when they re-enter our communities."

In O’Rourke’s plan, which is set to be publicly released Monday morning, he pledges to invest $500 million to developing a “pilot program” focused on coming up with “alternatives to incarceration,” though it does not specify what some of those alternatives might be.

For those inside the federal prison system, a shortened sentence could become a reality under an O’Rourke administration. According to the document, he hopes to grant clemency to 25,000 inmates in his first term, which would reportedly save the federal government “hundreds of millions of dollars.”

The yearly cost to confine an inmate in 2016 was $36,299.25, according to the federal bureau of prisons, and if those figures remained constant through 2021, the potential annual savings would come to more than $900 million.

Still, such sweeping ambitions for overhauling the criminal justice system would need to be carried out at the state levels as well. O’Rourke’s plan banks on cooperation from governors to “adopt aggressive goals” to provide clemency to individuals in their home states. O’Rourke’s administration would also triple the budget for re-entry grants to states — designed to help individuals once released from prison — to $3 billion over ten years.

Democratic presidential candidate and former Texas congressman Beto O'Rourke. (Photo: Steve Marcus/Reuters)

O’Rourke’s plan targets treatment of inmates during their imprisonment as well. The Texas legislator promises to totally eliminate fees for phone calls of incarcerated individuals — which can amount to $20 for a 15-minute conversation.

He would also establish a new office within the Department of Justice called the “Office of Disability,” which would be focused on treating mental health. Law enforcement, first responders and civilian staff would receive mental health treatment, too, through expanded peer-to-peer support groups.

The broad strokes of O’Rourke’s plans are largely popular across Democratic party contenders; in fact, many candidates have pushed for the overhaul of the criminal justice system. Nearly every candidate — even the more centrist ones — share similar views on abolishing capital punishment, ending cash bail and eliminating mandatory minimum sentencing, according to a Politico tracker.

What distinguishes O’Rourke’s vision is his plan to “guarantee full enfranchisement” to four and a half million formerly incarcerated individuals by ensuring that they have the right to vote and access to post-incarceration housing and employment.

The campaign’s rollout of its criminal justice policies comes on the footsteps of Second Step Presidential Justice Forum, held Friday in Columbia, S.C., where President Trump received the Bipartisan Justice Award for his work in passing the First Step Act, legislation supported by both parties. Among other goals, the act works toward the reintroduction of former inmates into society. Such legislation was advocated by untraditional surrogates like reality star Kim Kardashian West, who is married to rapper Kanye West, an outspoken Trump supporter.

Though several Democratic candidates were present at the forum, O’Rourke was campaigning in Iowa.

While this is the campaign’s first official blueprint for criminal justice reform, O’Rourke has voiced concerns about the country’s prison system and policing over the past several years. He was one of many authors on a bipartisan Brennan Center memo pushing for changes in America’s incarceration system.

In his section of the report, he called for ending the “failing war on drugs” and advocated for many of the reforms now included in his campaign plan, such as scrapping mandatory minimum sentencing for non-violent drug offenders and eradicating for-profit prisons, which he described as one practice that “profits off human suffering.”

Criminal justice has been a key issue for a number of the Democratic presidential contenders, as well as the Trump administration, and the Brennan Center report included contributions from Cory Booker, Julian Castro, Kamala Harris, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, as well as White House adviser and President Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner.

“It’s unacceptable that America, the home of the free, locks up more of our own than any other country on the face of the planet, as we continue to have the world’s largest prison population — disproportionately comprised of people of color,” said O’Rourke added in a statement accompanying the plan. “We will not only reform this racist system, but we will work to end mass incarceration by ensuring fewer Americans enter the system in the first place while prioritizing rehabilitation and successful re-entry for those who have been locked out of it — or locked up in it.”

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