On Sunday, June 23, Mayor Pete Buttigieg had a wake-up call on criminal justice issues. Instead of prepping for the Democratic presidential debate to be held on June 27, Buttigieg held a South Bend, Indiana town hall over the fatal police shooting of a 54 -year old black man by a white police officer. The police officer’s body camera did not record the shooting. Many black residents expressed anger at Buttigieg over the city’s ongoing criminal justice issues involving blacks and the police.
Eric Logan was just the latest black man shot and killed by a police officer. He follows a long list of many others throughout the country. This is not an isolated issue solely for Mayor Buttigieg but for all Democratic presidential candidates in 2020. Criminal justice reform, including police shootings and killings of blacks, is an issue that must be addressed by Democratic presidential contenders.
As an African American woman and former prosecutor, it’s painful to listen to my friends discuss “the talk” given to their young black sons. The talk requires letting black kids know at an early age how to act if confronted by police—as they don’t want their sons to end up as fatal police shooting victims. And as a criminal defense attorney, it’s disheartening for me to see court rooms full of African American males-even in predominately white areas.
African American voters and particularly African American women make up the highest voting block that will determine if Democrats can win back the presidency in 2020. During the 2012 presidential election, black women out voted white men, white women and black men at 70% turnout. African American women are the most reliable voting demographic block. Buttigieg, during Sunday’s town hall, appears to indicate that he doesn’t understand the enormity of the black voter impact-particularly black women. A black woman asked Buttigieg at the town hall if he expected blacks to vote for him. He replied “I’m not asking for your vote.” Buttigieg and other presidential contenders must not only ask for black votes but earn black votes.
As the Democratic presidential debates begin this week, we will have an opportunity to hear how candidates address criminal justice issues primarily affecting African Americans—from police shootings to mass incarceration. Senator Cory Booker, a former mayor, introduced the Next Step Act and Marijuana Justice Act. The Next Step Act would make significant reforms to sentencing, prisons and law enforcement practices. The Marijuana Justice Act would restrict funding for states that have a disproportionately high rate of marijuana arrests of minorities.
Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren call for the elimination of private prisons—which help to add fuel to the prison population while charging for and making exorbitant profits on basic inmate necessities. Sanders advocates for the elimination of the cash bail system that keeps poor people in jail due to their financial inability to pay bail. Since running for Democratic presidential nominee, Senator Kamala Harris, a former prosecutor, switched her position to one of support for independent investigations in police brutality and shooting cases. Senator Amy Klobuchar, as a former county attorney, failed to prosecute any police shooting fatality cases—29 fatalities in total. And former Vice President Joe Biden will need to address his criminal justice position of the 1990’s which helped to give us mass incarceration of prisons filled with black and Hispanic men.
Criminal justice issues disproportionally affect African Americans. Criminal justice reform is not a black issue. It is not an urban issue. It is an American issue. The pledge of allegiance states “one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.” A majority of Americans believe the criminal justice system needs reforming.
Any presidential candidate must recognize criminal justice reform is an important American issue to garner the African American vote—particularly the votes of black women.
Debbie Hines is a former Baltimore prosecutor.
UPDATE – Post Debate 6/26/2019
Much to my surprise, many of the Democratic presidential contenders discussed criminal justice issues in last night’s debate.
• Cory Booker discussed mass incarceration, private prisons and how there are more black and brown people in prison than there were slaves in 1850.
• Elizabeth Warren addressed gun violence as a national emergency needing research as no one size solution fits all.
• Beto O’Rourke mentioned the opioid crisis and how criminal justice eludes holding big pharmaceutical companies accountable. Yet, opioid addicted users go to prison.
The biggest winner of the criminal justice discussion is Julian Castro. He made clear that police reforms are needed for blacks and Latinos mistreated by police-naming Eric Garner, Tamir Rice and Sandra Bland—blacks killed at the hands of police; in contrast to Dylan Roof, a white man, who killed 9 persons at a church in Charleston, but police apprehended without incident.