Leading liberals in both chambers will introduce legislation Thursday promoting a sweeping overhaul of the nation's prison system.
Sponsored by Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersOvernight Energy: Trump set to sign offshore drilling order Meghan McCain: Obama 'a dirty capitalist like the rest of us' Dems might begin again with Kamala Harris and California MORE (I-Vt.) and Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.), the package aims to reduce incarcerations nationwide by eliminating privately run prisons, reinstating the federal parole system to allow for more early releases, and ending the quota system governing immigrant detentions.
Supporters of the legislation contend the changes are necessary to eliminate "perverse profit incentives" that encourage national incarceration rates ranking among the highest in the world.
"We need to end the tragic reality that the United States has more people in jail than any other country on earth, and that the people being incarcerated are disproportionately black and Hispanic," Sanders said last week, previewing the package.
The legislation has little chance of moving through a Congress controlled by Republicans. But it does send a message to voters about the contrast between each party's policy priorities. And it comes at a time when Sanders, a contender for the Democratic presidential nomination, is seeking to make inroads with African American voters.
Sanders, a liberal icon, has surged in the polls in recent weeks, even overtaking frontrunner Hillary ClintonHillary Rodham ClintonTrump’s foreign policy of more is about money Meghan McCain: Obama 'a dirty capitalist like the rest of us' Democrats must have a better response on net neutrality than simply 'no' MORE in the key primary states of Iowa and New Hampshire, according to recent surveys. But while he's attracting enormous crowds, the audiences have been largely white, and Clinton remains the heavy favorite among African Americans, who make up a significant portion of Democratic voters in many Southern states.
Sanders has taken recent steps to close the gap. Last month, following protests from Black Lives Matter activists, he introduced a new "racial justice" page to his campaign web site that promoted broad criminal justice reforms. And on Wednesday, he sat down for an hour with members of the group on a range of topics important to the black community.
"We covered a lot of ground in the meeting w/ @BernieSanders, from the challenges w/ community policing to medical marijuana," DeRay McKesson, a prominent Black Lives Matter activist, tweeted afterwards. "In the end, @BernieSanders' candor & willingness to be pushed re: policy and approach were evident."
Dubbed the Justice Is Not For Sale Act, the Sanders-Grijalva bill would bar federal, state and local governments from contracting with private companies to own or operate prisons within two years. It would restore the federal parole system, which was eliminated in 1984 for any crime committed after 1987. And it would take steps to rein in banking and telecommunications fees charged to prisoners, often at exorbitant rates.
The package also addresses the detention of immigrants. It would force the Obama administration to close several detention centers housing thousands of illegal immigrant women and children in Texas and Pennsylvania.
It would also eliminate the nine-year-old requirement that federal immigration enforcers maintain an average of 34,000 detainees in their facilities each day. Sanders and Grijalva say the government would save $1.4 billion each year by moving those immigrants to less restrictive environments.