"Do or Do not. There is no try."

“A Pledge He Can’t Keep”: Bernie’s Prison Promise Is Too Good To Be True

Democrats’ embarrassment of riches was on display last night in Milwaukee. Watching the two candidates, the choice between Hillary Clinton’s pragmatism and Bernie Sander’s idealism feels less like a primary battle and more like a glimpse of the internal dialogue swirling in the average progressive brain.

Practicality doesn’t always mean granting concessions, says Clinton, and big dreams don’t signal naivety, says Sanders. Their campaigns are running on flip-sides of the same coin: Elect me, and I’ll make progressive policies actually happen.

That undercurrent of possibility is why something seemed off to me about a promise Sanders made early in the debate. Talking about criminal justice reform, Sanders committed to a specific pledge: “Here’s my promise, at the end of my first term as president we will not have more people in jail than any other country.”

It sounds too good to be true, but that could just be cynicism talking. Sanders is certainly right that the U.S. imprisons more people than any other country on earth, a point both he and Clinton have made repeatedly during recent months.

The horrifying statistic shifts only slightly depending on how it’s calculated: In raw numbers, there are approximately 2.22 million people incarcerated in America, the most of any country on earth, according to the most recent World Prison Population List released by the International Center for Prison Studies. Coming in second place is China with 1.66 million people incarcerated. (It’s important to note, however, that this count only includes the prisoners that China officially recognizes.) Russia comes in a distant third with 640,000 people in prison.

If you adjust for population size, the U.S. has the second-highest incarceration rate in the world. We held the title for years until the island nation of Seychelles overtook us in 2015. Comparing the number of prisoners per 100,000 of the national population, Seychelles has a rate of 799. (And its entire population isn’t even 100,000.) The U.S. and its mammoth population of nearly 320 million has a rate of 698 per 100,000. To put this in perspective: The majority of nations worldwide have incarceration rates of less than 150.

While it’s not much of a consolation to be second rather than first in global incarceration rates, Sanders could theoretically make good on his pledge just by maintaining the status quo and pointing to incarceration rates by population at the end of his first term. Of course that would do nothing of actual value for criminal justice reform, a top priority of both Sanders and most Democrats.

Thus, Sanders must be promising to simply, and drastically, reduce the raw number of people incarcerated in America. So could he do that?

In a word: Nope.

It’s a hollow promise, impossible for Sanders to keep given the powers of the presidency.

Of all the people incarcerated in the U.S., only about 13 percent are in the federal system. And while the Constitution grants the president pardon authority for “offenses against the United States,” the president has no such authority over state prisoners. As the White House simply explained in response to a petition to pardon the two men featured in the Netflix documentary “Making a Murderer,” “the President cannot pardon a state criminal offense.” That power rests at the state level.

There are currently 210,567 people incarcerated in the federal system, according to the most recent Bureau of Justice Statistics report. Even if Sanders were to unlock every single federal prisoner and set them free, there would still be approximately 2 million people incarcerated – we’d still hold the global crown for most people incarcerated, because even with zero federal prisons we’d continue to lead China by about 400,000 prisoners. As NYU professor Mark Kleiman, who literally wrote the book on America’s incarceration problem, put it, “Sanders was very specifically making a promise he has no way of keeping. Either he knows that or he does not.”

I want very badly to believe a President Sanders could fulfill his promise and remove the disgraceful crown of mass incarceration from our collective heads, all in his first four years. But that’s just not the reality of how our system works.

Math hasn’t been kind to Sanders on a couple of his platforms thus far. And without the potential for real change, passion just amounts to noise. Sanders understands this – he has detailed, solid ideas on justice reform. Perhaps more critically, he has easy lines of attack against Hillary for her support of her husband and then-President Bill Clinton’s enactment of minimum sentencing guidelines and law enforcement measures that sent the prison population skyrocketing. So why is he undermining himself with fairy-tale promises?


By: Emily Arrowood,  Assistant Editor for Opinion, U.S. News & World Report, February 12, 2016

February 15, 2016 - Posted by | Bernie Sanders, Criminal Justice System, Federal and State Prisons, Hillary Clinton, Mass Incarceration | , , , , , ,


  1. Maybe Sanders has a way to get China to jail 600000 more people/


    Comment by List of X | February 15, 2016 | Reply

  2. The discussion on the Democrat side has tended to be issues oriented. I strongly suggest the two camps keep it that way and not embark down the childish debate example in evidence in the last GOP debate. At the end of the primary, the Dems need to coalesce around the chosen candidate as the alternative is not good for America or the planet. We must continue down the path of addressing climate change, help people in poverty, continue some form of healthcare for many, etc.


    Comment by Keith | February 15, 2016 | Reply

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