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Cory Booker is a genuinely distinctive Democrat on one big issue: criminal justice

Booker’s presidential campaign opens a left flank on criminal justice issues.

Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) speaks at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia in 2016.
Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) speaks at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia in 2016.
Aaron P. Bernstein/Getty Images

In announcing his presidential campaign on Friday morning, Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) may have become the criminal justice reformer’s candidate.

Just about every Democratic candidate is expected, at this point, to voice some level of support for reversing mass incarceration, pulling back the war on drugs, and ending police brutality.

But Booker has been a steady leader on this issue. He introduced the most ambitious marijuana legalization bill at the federal level. He’s proposed several criminal justice reform bills, including measures that would target not just federal prisons but state and local ones too. And he’s even acknowledged that criminal justice reform should, at some point, move beyond helping only nonviolent offenders.

Simply put: Booker is often far ahead of other politicians, including those in his party, when it comes to criminal justice reform. In the 2020 Democratic primary, it’s one issue that could make him stand out.

That’s especially true because of who Booker’s likely opponents will be. Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) already announced her candidacy — and she’s been snared by claims that she was a “tough on crime” prosecutor and attorney general, despite some of her genuine reform efforts. Former Vice President Joe Biden is expected to enter the race too — and he has a lengthy record of supporting harsh criminal justice policies, including writing laws as a US senator from the 1980s to 2000s that created mandatory minimum prison sentences for drugs, encouraged more incarceration, and overall pushed the criminal justice system in a more punitive direction.

Booker, then, has an opportunity to open a left flank on criminal justice issues. Even if his presidential bid isn’t ultimately successful, his advocacy in this area could force the party to confront its history of supporting “tough on crime” policies — and the politicians behind those efforts, like Biden — and ultimately move Democrats in a more progressive direction on criminal justice.

Booker has the most ambitious marijuana legalization bill

One example of Booker’s work on criminal justice reform is marijuana legalization. Historically, federal marijuana legalization efforts have focused on limiting enforcement, penalties, and restrictions under federal law, but ultimately left it up to the states — the great majority of which still prohibit cannabis — to decide whether they will legalize pot.

But Booker’s marijuana legalization bill would go much further: It would encourage states, with the incentive of federal funds, to legalize marijuana. The bill allocates federal dollars to “a community reinvestment fund” for job training, reentry services, and community centers, among other programs — all in an effort to combat the harms of prohibition.

This isn’t just an endorsement of legalization. It’s an attempt to get more states to truly reverse cannabis prohibition and its damages — the racial disparities, the hundreds of thousands of arrests — by repealing it and putting money toward programs that can help affected communities.

Some of Booker’s likely 2020 opponents, including Harris, Bernie Sanders, and Elizabeth Warren, signed on to Booker’s proposal in the months after it was introduced. But Booker was the first to propose such a sweeping measure in the Senate.

Booker has proposed more sweeping criminal justice reform bills

On mass incarceration, Booker has also run ahead of his colleagues. Most reform efforts regarding incarceration at the federal level, including the recently passed First Step Act, have focused on federal law and federal prisons. These measures have helped and would help thousands of people locked up in federal facilities.

But the great majority of people in prison in America — about 87 percent — are in state-run facilities. Since these prisons house inmates who violated state law, changes to federal law simply won’t do anything for them.

To deal with this, Booker introduced the Reverse Mass Incarceration Act, which would authorize $2 billion a year to encourage states to cut prison populations while keeping crime rates low. Some experts, like Fordham University’s John Pfaff, question whether this approach will work — given that similarly modeled efforts in the past, including the 1994 crime bill that encouraged more incarceration, have failed to produce results. But it’s at least an attempt to wrestle with an issue, however flawed, that most federal reform efforts miss.

Booker has also backed more traditional criminal justice bills, ranging from the First Step Act to ending welfare bans for drug offenders to public defender reforms to “ban the box.” The Reverse Mass Incarceration Act, though, shows he has a comprehensive view of the criminal justice system and the reforms that are necessary.

Booker acknowledges that prison time for violent offenses can be a problem too

Booker is also one of the few lawmakers to acknowledge that reversing mass incarceration will, at some point, require reducing incarceration for violent offenses, not just the low-level drug and property crimes that reformers have historically targeted.

As it stands, the majority of people in state prisons are in for violent crimes. Given that some reformers have aimed to cut the overall prison population by 50 percent, at some point the number of people in prison for violent crimes will need to be reduced as well.

When I asked Booker about this in 2016, he acknowledged the problem, questioning whether long prison sentences for violent offenses are worthwhile and noting the well-established research that people, including violent offenders, mostly age out of crime.

“When people are in prison, maybe they commit a crime in their 20s, and now they’re in their 50s, 60s, and 70s and we’re still holding them in prison; there is so much data that shows that you hit a point in your age that your chances of committing another crime have gone down dramatically,” he said. “There comes a point where you really have to ask yourself if we have achieved the societal end in keeping these people in prison for so long.”

He also noted that Americans’ perceptions of who’s a violent offender are often skewed.

“You could have someone who’s in a car, driving a boyfriend, and the boyfriend decides to jump out, pull a gun out, rob somebody, jumps back in the car, and she keeps driving — and now she’s a violent criminal,” Booker said. “So we need to start having a better conversation about the many people who are languishing in prison for very long terms when their crime was not showing the right sense and stopping the car and exiting the car as a driver or what have you.”

In covering the criminal justice system, I’ve talked to a lot of politicians and their offices. I can tell you that even some very progressive and reform-minded offices want nothing to do with the over-incarceration of violent offenders. Harris, for one, still boasts about locking up violent offenders when she was a prosecutor.

There’s a good reason for that: Polls show most Americans, including the majority of Democrats and liberals, oppose cutting penalties for violent offenders. So although it’s an area where criminal justice reformers want to see candidates move, it’s dangerous territory for anyone running for president — particularly in a general election, where centrist voters may resist any advocacy and policies that they see as “soft on crime.”

So the fact that Booker is willing to talk about this issue, and call it an actual problem that needs to be addressed, makes him stand out. It’s emblematic of why criminal justice reformers can look forward to his run.

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