1. America currently imprisons 2.2 million people, more than any nation on earth both per capita and in absolute numbers. Do you believe that America jails too many of its citizens and if so, what would you do to reduce the incarceration rate?
Yes. Our policy of mass incarceration is incompatible with a healthy society, and I would end it. Because the burden of incarceration falls most heavily on the poor and on minorities, it is a civil rights issue. Starting at the federal level, we must begin to treat criminal violations as a symptom of social failure whose causes must be identified and rooted out. In particular, we must treat drug abuse as a public health problem and not a criminal justice problem. We must focus on harm reduction and rehabilitation. The problem of mass incarceration will not be solved in the courts alone – it will require a concerted, cooperative effort from our entire society.
2. Do you believe that America’s public defender system is in crisis, chronically underfunded and understaffed? If so, what would your administration do to ensure that public defense is adequately funded?
Yes. The public defender system is not being adequately funded or staffed. This is a matter of social equity and equal justice for all. But while improving the public defender system, including providing adequate funding, I would seek to reform the entire criminal justice system within which the public defender system operates.
3. What would your administration do to address racial disparities in the criminal justice system and what strategies would you employ to eliminate them?
First, my economic policies would set as a concrete goal the elimination of the economic and health care disparities that are driving the troubling statistics of our criminal justice system. This would greatly relieve the caseload pressures upon the system and address the disproportionate number of minority persons who are being ensnared by the system. Secondly, I would reorient the system so that each criminal violation results in activation of a rehabilitation team that diagnoses and develops solutions to the specific problems that led the offending individual into trouble with the law. A public defender would be a key member of this team, helping resolve the legal aspects of the case. But rather than simply deciding how much prison time to impose, we would require a plan for how to ensure that the individual overcomes the problems that brought them into the system. To do this, we need expanded research into the sociology and psychology behind problem behavior. We need better technical tools and more flexible sentencing options.
I would also redirect more of our criminal justice efforts toward our most dangerous criminals, starting with white collar criminals engaged in fraud, assaults through health-damaging pollution, and selling of dangerous products.
Finally, in instances of possible criminal assaults by police officers, I support laws to require appointment of independent outside legal representatives to investigate and prosecute the case rather than relying on prosecutors involved in the local criminal justice system.
4. What would your administration do to reduce the collateral consequences from a criminal conviction that impact a person’s ability to find employment, housing, and attend school?
In my home state of Massachusetts, I worked to implement a “ban the box” law that prohibited employers from using criminal records to exclude job applicants before interviewing them. I think that employer use of criminal records should be restricted to cases where there is clear relevance to public safety, and that use of such data in pre-screening should be prohibited.
5. Do you support the elimination of mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent offenders and what would you do to eliminate them?
Absolutely. Mandatory minimum sentences serve no useful purpose and often result in life-destroying sentences instead of rehabilitation. I support legislation to eliminate mandatory minimum sentences from federal code.
6. Do you support trying and incarcerating youthful offenders as adults, and if not, what actions would you take to reduce or eliminate this practice?
No, I do not support trying youthful offenders as adults. The focus upon rehabilitation that I discussed earlier is especially important for younger offenders, and trying them as adults runs counter to this.
7. Do you support states’ right to de-criminalize medical and/or recreational marijuana and would you continue the current policy of deferring to the states on this issue?
Yes. I support the legalization of marijuana, including for recreational purposes.
8. Do you believe persons facing deportation have a right to a lawyer and that one should be appointed if the person cannot afford one?
Yes. Too many human rights violations have occurred due to inadequate legal representation of persons facing deportation.
9. A large percentage of people incarcerated in this country suffer from mental illness. What is your plan to treat those who persons in the criminal justice system who are mentally ill and to reduce the incarceration of the mentally ill?
First, I support a universal single-payer health care system that would ensure that every individual receives adequate health care, including mental health care. This would reduce the caseload of mentally ill persons entering the criminal justice system. Second, my approach to rehabilitation would mean that mentally ill persons who violate laws would be dealt with by an evaluation team that would include persons trained in diagnosing and treating mental and emotional problems. We must invest in research into mental health issues and must encourage additional alternatives to prison for persons dealing with mental issues.
10. Do you support or oppose the death penalty and would you continue, reduce, or expand its use?
I oppose the death penalty. History shows that it has not been applied fairly and it distracts from dealing with the real problems of serious crime. I would end its use.
11. How should prosecutors who hide or suppress evidence in criminal cases be held accountable?
Such suppression is a crime against society as well as a crime against the individuals who are on trial. It undermines confidence in our system of justice. I would have a special investigatory office handle such cases and would permit the prosecution of individuals who engage in such behavior.
12. In order to prosecute and convict a person, should the government be required to prove that an accused individual committed the prohibited act with criminal intent?
I think that the issue of criminal intent is very relevant to the charges to be brought against an individual and to proper sentencing. However, I would not support making the requirement for proof of criminal intent so absolute that laws to protect the health and safety of our citizens could be violated with impunity by individuals claiming that their injurious acts were not inflicted with criminal intent.
13. In light of widespread errors in forensic crime laboratories run by law enforcement agencies, do you support having independently operated crime labs?
To our shame, we have failed to provide proper quality control for forensic crime laboratories. I am open to proposals for fixing this problem, and I believe that independently operated crime labs could be a key part of the solution.
14. What is your plan for the prison at Guantanamo Bay?
All prisoners at Guantanamo should be given fair trials. If no convictions are possible, they should be released. The prison at Guantanamo should be closed.
15. President Obama’s clemency initiative to date has led to the reduction of the sentences of several hundred people convicted of non-violent offenses. Would you eliminate, continue, or expand this initiative?
I would expand the clemency initiatives to provide clemency for individuals who have already served an appropriate sentence or whose convictions appear to involve a miscarriage of justice. I would also issue presidential pardons for whistleblowers who served the interests of the American people by revealing crimes and abuses of their government.