LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
Several Democratic presidential hopefuls made stops in Atlanta this weekend at the Young Leaders Conference. They spoke with African American church leaders and to thousands of black millennials about health care, gun violence and their proposals for criminal justice reform. One of those hopefuls is with us this morning. Senator Bernie Sanders is here to share, for the first time, his plan to overhaul the criminal justice system. Good morning, Senator Sanders.
BERNIE SANDERS: Good morning, Lulu.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: So there's a lot in your proposal. But in broad strokes, can you talk about some of the ways you're looking at addressing both mass incarceration and the institutions that you say benefit from that system? You'd say...
GARCIA-NAVARRO: ...You'd end cash bail.
SANDERS: Yes. Look; the first thing we have to recognize is that our criminal justice system is not just broken. It is deeply, deeply, deeply broken. It is a dysfunctional system, which is punishing millions of people unnecessarily. So the first point I think we have to focus on is why it is that we are spending $80 billion a year - $80 billion a year to lock up over 2 million Americans, which is more people behind bars in America than any other country on Earth, including China, a communist, authoritarian nation. So something is fundamentally flawed.
And the major emphasis - the major transformation that we need is to put money into prevention, to making sure that people do not end up in jail, rather than punishment. Furthermore, we have an insane system, which I think not many people are aware of, that, Lulu, today, 20% of the people who are in jail at this moment, their crime is they are poor. They have been convicted of nothing. They are in jail because they cannot afford cash bail.
And I think people are listening to this, like, that can't be true. Do you mean that we have hundreds of thousands of people in jail right now who have been convicted of nothing? Yes, that's right, convicted of nothing. But they cannot afford the...
SANDERS: ...Five hundred dollars or the $1,000 they need for cash bail.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: So you've said you want to end that system. You've also said that you'd actually withhold funding from states that continue the use of cash bail. That's a pretty big stick to use, isn't it?
SANDERS: Well, I think you're dealing with a very big problem. It is hard to imagine that, in the year 2019, we are back in Charles Dickens' era of debtor prisons. Hundreds of thousands of people in jail right now - why? Because they can't afford bail; they are poor. And we have got to do everything we can to end that outrage. And we have to understand that it is an outrage. The other area - I'm sorry, go ahead.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: No, no, please finish your thought.
SANDERS: The other area that we have to look at - you talk to anybody who knows anything about criminology or penology and what they will tell you - that a significant number of people in jail today are in jail because they are suffering from addiction. It's drug addiction. It is alcohol addiction.
You've got other people in jail in large numbers because they're dealing with mental illness. In fact, jails are probably the major recipients or treaters of mental illness in this country. That is absurd. We ask police officers today to act as psychiatrists, to act - do all kinds of work that really is beyond the training that they have.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: So much of the...
GARCIA-NAVARRO: ...Policing though happens at the state and local level. How do you enforce those ideas?
SANDERS: Good. Well, that's a good question. And what you can do is use the carrot and the stick of the federal government. You're quite right. A lot of these decisions are being made at the local and the state level. But what we want certainly with federal law enforcement - our federal prisons - is we want it to be a model in order to have an impact on state and local government. And we also want to use federal funding to help move local police departments in a more positive direction.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Senator Sanders, like many of your colleagues, you did vote for the 1994 crime bill that is blamed for the mass incarceration of young black men, which you are decrying now. Back then, you said it was a good compromise. Do you regret that vote and take ownership of...
SANDERS: No, I didn't...
GARCIA-NAVARRO: ...The result?
SANDERS: ...Say it was - no, I didn't say it was a good compromise. What I said is that - on the floor of the House when I voted for that, I knew it was a bad bill, but I made a promise to the people of the state of Vermont that I would vote to ban assault weapons. I ran for the United States Congress on that. And it would have been totally hypocritical of me to suddenly not vote for that legislation as bad as it was.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: But do you regret that vote? Do you regret it now?
SANDERS: I regret the legislation that was on the floor. It was a bad piece of legislation. I don't regret voting to ban assault weapons. That's the promise that I made to the people of the state of Vermont.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: I ask, specifically, also because you had a crushing loss in 2016 in South Carolina's primary. The accusation was that you ignored criminal justice reform back then. Are you focusing on it now in black voters...
SANDERS: No, we did not ignore...
GARCIA-NAVARRO: ...In a way that some...
GARCIA-NAVARRO: ...Say you didn't?
SANDERS: No. We went into South Carolina against a very popular candidate - the wife of a president - and we did poorly. I think if you check out what's going on right now, we're going to do much, much better. Criminal justice - I did not ignore it in 2016. And criminal justice is an issue that cannot be ignored. You cannot ignore a reality in which we have 2 million people, disproportionately African American, Latino and Native American, who are behind bars.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Will you be focusing...
GARCIA-NAVARRO: ...On this issue in a much more substantial way in this election?
SANDERS: Well, we have in this campaign, and of course we will continue to do it. We did focus on it in 2016. We will focus on it more.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: This past week, the possibility of softness in the economy has been a focus. And a lot of what you're talking about would take real investment. I have to ask you, at this particular time, what would you have to reprioritize in a weaker economy?
SANDERS: Well, that's a good question. And I think the answer is we reprioritize our willingness to allow three people to own more wealth than the bottom half of America. I think we reprioritize the fact that Trump has given $1.1 trillion in tax breaks to the top 1% and to large private and profitable corporations. Amazon made $10 billion last year - didn't pay a nickel in federal income tax. I think we prioritize the reality that trillions of dollars are being stashed away in the Cayman Islands and other tax havens by large corporations and the wealthy.
So I think at the time - and at a moment of massive income and wealth inequality, we must demand that the wealthiest people in this country and the largest corporations start paying their fair share of taxes. I think we ought to take a hard look at the military budget, which is increasing rapidly. It will be $750 billion a year next year. And that is spending more than the next 10 nations combined.
SANDERS: And I'm not quite sure that Trump knows who our enemy is.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Senator Bernie Sanders is an independent from Vermont. He's also running for the Democratic nomination. Thank you so much.
SANDERS: Thank you. Bye-Bye. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.