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Elizabeth Warren releases sweeping plan to overhaul criminal justice system

Elizabeth Warren.
Elizabeth Warren. Dustin Chambers/New York Times

Senator Elizabeth Warren on Tuesday proposed a host of new initiatives in a sweeping overhaul of the nation’s criminal justice system, outlining changes that would affect policies ranging from school discipline to sentencing guidelines to the use of force by police.

Warren released her plan just days after 2020 Democratic rival Senator Bernie Sanders outlined his proposals on the hot-button campaign issue, with the Vermont senator setting an ambitious goal of cutting the prison population in half. Warren highlighted inequities in the criminal justice system ahead of a forum she will attend on the issue in Minnesota on Tuesday.


“It’s not equal justice when a kid with an ounce of pot can get thrown in jail, while a bank executive who launders money for a drug cartel can get a bonus. It’s long past time for us to reform our system,” Warren wrote in a lengthy post on the Medium website.

Similar to her approach on voting rights, Warren’s plan relies on the use of federal money as leverage to encourage local law enforcement and local prosecutors to adopt many of her changes.

On policing, Warren would implement a federal standard for the use of force that would apply to federal law enforcement, and use federal money to encourage local departments to adopt other changes, including the use of body cameras by police and an end to “stop-and-frisk” policies. She also called for local police to “demilitarize” and would eliminate a Defense Department program used to transfer unused military equipment to police departments.

Warren would support measures to make it easier for people to sue police departments when their civil rights have been violated. Her plan would also increase resources for mental health care and support programs for police officers, who experience higher rates of suicide and trauma-related disorders than the general public.


The proposals on policing come as the Massachusetts senator was recently criticized by a union representing Massachusetts police officers over her description of the death of Michael Brown, whose death sparked a national conversation on police violence in the African-American community, as a murder.

Much of Warren’s plan focuses on helping people avoid interaction with the criminal justice system, beginning with how schools discipline students. Calling it a part of the school-to-prison pipeline, Warren would decriminalize truancy and instead focus on boosting resources for mental health care in schools. The proposal highlights an issue that has been a problem for Senator Kamala Harris, who ran a program as a prosecutor in San Francisco that used threats of jail time to pressure parents of truant kids.

Highlighting another dividing line among the 2020 Democratic presidential primary field, Warren argued for repealing the 1994 crime bill that set mandatory minimum sentences for many nonviolent drug offenses and that critics say ushered in the present-day era of mass incarceration. That legislation was championed by then-Senator Joe Biden, and he has defended it as he campaigns for president, although his criminal justice plan would reverse portions of it.

A new advisory board on criminal justice that Warren would create would include people who have been formerly incarcerated alongside victims of violence to “listen to the needs of those who have first-hand experience with the system.” Another proposal would change the way the president determines who gets a reduced sentence or pardon by establishing a board that would search for deserving cases and make clemency recommendations directly to the White House. Warren said the current Department of Justice-led structure “results in relatively few and conservative clemency recommendations.”


Warren’s plan would eliminate the practice of requiring defendants to post cash bail and reduce the fees associated with courts, which she argues only serve to criminalize poverty.

“A simple misdemeanor like a speeding ticket shouldn’t be enough to send someone spiraling into poverty or worse,” Warren wrote.

Warren would implement another set of reforms that would address the conditions of those already incarcerated, including eliminating solitary confinement and assigning transgender individuals to facilities that match their gender identity.

Warren’s plan also boosts funding for public defenders and makes it easier for people to challenge their detention in federal court.

“It is a false choice to suggest a tradeoff between safety and mass incarceration,” she wrote.

Christina Prignano can be reached at christina.prignano@globe.com.