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What Democratic Presidential Candidates’ Said About Criminal Justice Reform at the First Debate

| October 15, 2015

The first debate in the 2016 Democratic presidential primary took place last week at the Wynn Hotel in Las Vegas, Nevada.  Five candidates—former Senator Jim Webb, current Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, former Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley, and former Rhode Island Governor Lincoln Chafee—scrutinized a variety of issues over the two-hour period. The importance of criminal justice reform was highlighted by multiple candidates throughout the entirety of the debate:

Former Senator Jim Webb

Webb was the first to usher the issue of criminal justice reform into the spotlight, discussing the topic in his opening and closing statements.

 “I brought criminal justice reform out of the political shadows and into the national discussion.”


We’re talking about criminal justice reform, I risked my political life raising the issue of criminal justice reform when I ran for the Senate in Virginia in 2006. I had Democratic Party political consultants telling me I was committing political suicide. We led that issue in the Congress. We started a national debate on it.”


“I’ve always been willing to take on a complicated, something unpopular issues, and work them through, the complex issues, and work them through in order to have the solution. We did it with criminal justice reform. We’ve had a lot of discussion here about criminal justice reform.”

Senator Bernie Sanders

Sanders also raised the issue of criminal justice reform early in the debate, highlighting the importance of education and employment in reducing crime and recidivism.

“Today in America, we have more people in jail than any other country on Earth.”


“It seems to me that instead of building more jails and providing more incarceration, maybe — just maybe — we should be putting money into education and jobs for our kids.”


“We need to combat institutional racism from top to bottom, and we need major, major reforms in a broken criminal justice system…In which we have more people in jail than China. And, I intended to tackle that issue. To make sure that our people have education and jobs rather than jail cells.”

Similar to Jeb Bush in the second Republican debate, Sanders also confessed to using marijuana –drawing attention to incarceration for non-violent drug offenses.

“I am seeing in this country too many lives being destroyed for non-violent offenses. We have a criminal justice system that lets CEOs on Wall Street walk away, and yet we are imprisoning or giving jail sentences to young people who are smoking marijuana. I think we have to think through this war on drugs which has done an enormous amount of damage. We need to rethink our criminal justice system, we we’ve got a lot of work to do in that area.”

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton

In relation to Sanders’ statement regarding the decriminalization of marijuana, Clinton found common ground:

“I agree completely with the idea that we have got to stop imprisoning people who use marijuana. Therefore, we need more states, cities, and the federal government to begin to address this so that we don’t have this terrible result that Senator Sanders was talking about where we have a huge population in our prisons for nonviolent, low-level offenses that are primarily due to marijuana.”

The former Secretary of State also touched on policing procedures and mass incarceration.

“So, what we need to be doing is not only reforming criminal justice — I have talked about that at some length, including things like body cameras, but we also need to be following the recommendations of the commissioner that President Obama empaneled on policing.”


“Similarly, we need to tackle mass incarceration, and this may be the only bi-partisan issue in the Congress this year…We cannot keep imprisoning more people than anybody else in the world.”

Former Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley

O’Malley chose to comment on his role in reducing crime and improving police relations in his home state of Maryland.

“We have a lot of work to do to reform our criminal justice system.”


“One of the things that was not reported during that heartbreaking night of unrest in Baltimore was that arrests had actually fallen to a 38-year low in the year prior to the Freddie Gray’s tragic death.”


“When I ran for mayor of Baltimore back in 1999, it was not because our city was doing well. It was because we allowed ourselves to become the most violent, addicted, and abandoned city in America. And I ran and promised people that together we could turn that around. And we put our city on a path to reduce violent crime, or part one crime by more than any other major city in America over the next 10 years.”


“We saved lives and we gave our city a better future, improving police and community relations every single day that I was in office.”


“Arrests peaked in 2003, Anderson, but they declined every year after that as we restored peace in our poorer neighborhoods so that people could actually walk and not have to worry about their kids or their loved ones of being victims of violent crime.”

Photo: Matt Baron/Rex Shutterstock


SAVANNAH HOSTETTER is an intern with Right on Crime and the Center for Effective Justice at the Texas Public Policy Foundation. Before joining the Foundation, she spent time in Washington, DC working for The Fund for American Studies, and interned in the office of U.S. Representative Michael K. Conaway.

Savannah recently graduated summa cum laude with a B.A. in political science from Abilene Christian University, and is excited to continue her education at Baylor University School of Law this spring.