A Republican and two Democratic presidential candidates took part in a criminal justice forum Saturday at a historically black university – offering very different visions on the federal government’s role in addressing injustices against African-Americans.
Republican presidential hopeful Ben Carson characterized police violence against blacks as isolated events born out of a lack of “mutual respect” between African-Americans and police.
U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders and former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, both seeking the Democratic nomination, offered a slate of policy proposals to combat unfair treatment of minorities in the criminal justice system.
Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton did not attend the forum, hosted by the 20/20 Leaders of America Club, a bipartisan group of African-American business, legal and government professionals from across the country that formed this year to push for the inclusion of criminal justice in the presidential debate.
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“Although the Confederate flag may have come down, the sources of segregation, degradation and systemic racism have anything but surrendered,” said Columbia City Councilman Brian Newman, a co-chairman of the 20/20 Club.
Sanders and O’Malley said they would push to reduce incarceration rates for African-Americans, equip all police with body cameras, decriminalize marijuana and demilitarize police departments, among other proposals.
O’Malley touted his record of enacting criminal justice reforms: reducing crime and incarceration rates, closing a violent prison and restoring voting rights to prior felons.
Asked how he would fight police unions, O’Malley said, “I’ve always been drawn to tough challenges.”
Sanders’ criticism of current drug policy earned him applause from the crowd: “How many encounters between young people and police begin with officers detecting the odor of marijuana?”
The only Republican candidate at the forum, Carson said he does not believe in mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses. He also said felons should be able to regain their voting rights “after they’ve paid their debts to society” – putting him in line with the Democratic candidates at the forum.
But Carson, in second place in the GOP nominating contest, offered little insight into what policies he would enact, beyond trying to encourage companies to bring overseas profits back to the United States and to invest them in high-poverty communities. Instead, he spent much of the time telling stories about growing up in poverty and lamented what he sees as a loss of values he said helped African-Americans endure slavery and the Jim Crow laws that mandated segregation.
Pressed by a reporter after the forum about whether he believes in institutional racism, Carson said, “It probably exists somewhere. But my point is, expose it. ... That’s your best defense.”
Carson also was asked to elaborate on comments he made recently in support of a database for tracking immigrants.
“I would be in favor of monitoring a mosque or any church or any organization or any school or any press corps where there was a lot of radicalization and things that are anti-American,” he said.