Sanders has the credibility Trump lacks on criminal justice reform

State Rep. Justin Bamberg
State Rep. Justin Bamberg

Thirty years ago Donald Trump took out a full-page advertisement in The New York Times calling for death sentences for five young black and brown men wrongfully accused of committing a horrible crime in New York City’s Central Park.

Trump was blunt about his feelings towards them.

“Maybe hate is what we need,” Trump said in an interview at the time, “if we’re gonna get something done.”

That hate helped land five young men in prison for more than a decade for a crime they did not commit.

Hateful as ever, Trump will speak today during the Second Step Presidential Justice Forum, which is being held this weekend at Benedict College.

Trump will talk about criminal justice in draconian terms — separating children from their families and encouraging police officers to “rough up” people they are arresting.

Fortunately, U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders will also attend the weekend forum to present his vision for criminal justice.

Sanders is the only 2020 presidential candidate who has spent a lifetime addressing the social ills and injustices that gave rise to the mass incarceration, police violence and racial profiling that plague our system today.

As Sanders often points out, income and wealth inequality in our country has reached crisis levels. Today half of all new income goes to the top 1 percent of Americans, and just three people own more wealth than the bottom 160 million Americans.

At the same time in the richest country in the history of the world, we let one in five children go hungry each day and hundreds of thousands of people sleep on the streets each night. In the black community, the poverty rate is now above 20 percent.

Instead of meeting this crisis of inequality with investments in living wage jobs, health care and education, America spends $80 billion each year on a prison-industrial complex that punishes people for being poor. As a result, tens of millions of young black men and women are trapped in a criminal justice system that disenfranchises them from political and economic life in this country.

These problems are particularly acute in South Carolina.

Roughly one in three jobs in this state are low-wage jobs, and the poverty rate is 25 percent higher than the national average.

South Carolina also locks people up at a higher rate than the United States as a whole with black and brown people accounting for approximately 70 percent of our prisoners — but only one-third of the total population.

This is problematic.

And these factors contribute to tragic incidents such as last year’s Lee Correctional Institution riot (the worst U.S. prison riot in the last 25 years).

Meanwhile, in many poor communities, especially in rural areas, schools are severely underfunded and young students are sometimes treated as criminals. Thousands of students, over 60 percent of them black or brown, are expelled from school each year.; this alone can more than double their chances of being arrested. Instead of investing in our kids’ futures, our state spends more than twice as much per inmate as it does on each student.

The problem is about more than just prisons.

Many South Carolinians will never be able to erase from their minds the brutal murder of Walter Scott and other innocent men and women gunned down or abused by police. Among those tragedies, black men are three times as likely as white men to be victimized.

As the son of lifelong law enforcement officials, I understand the challenges that our uniformed men and women face in the line of duty. But as a civil rights attorney, I also understand the dysfunction in too many police forces and city governments as well as the frustration of many who feel targeted time and again. We must work to rebuild trust and prevent crime by investing in our children and our communities.

I am supporting Bernie Sanders because I believe that investing in prevention, public health and fair sentencing is the best approach to criminal justice reform — and because Sanders is the best candidate to ensure justice and safety for all.

Democratic state Rep. Justin Bamberg represents House District 90. He is a trial attorney with Bamberg Legal, LLC.