The Fate Of Criminal Justice Reform in the 2020 Election

Image: FiveThirtyEight

by BRITNEY FIRMIN                                                                                                       Staff Writer

In an effort to rectify mass incarceration, punitive sentencing, and racially biased imprisonment in the United States, criminal justice reform has become a staple policy agenda amongst many political leaders and candidates. What it means to be a “progressive” candidate is intertwined with support for reformatory policies geared towards breaking the cyclical nature of the carceral state. With the executive branch historically acting as the arbiter of criminal justice policy, its evolution from pushing ‘tough on crime’ initiatives to endorsing more reformist agendas offers insight into the priorities of not only past leaders, but also of prospective contenders headed into the 2020 presidential election.

Photo: Nicholas Kamm, AFP, Getty Images

In 2016, it was commonly understood that the fate of criminal justice reform would be severely threatened by a Trump presidency. This belief was grounded in Trump’s endorsement of law and order politics and his appointment of Jeff Sessions as Attorney General. Sessions’ reform record was comprised of many punitive measures such as drug convictions for nonviolent offenses, endorsements of civil asset forfeiture, and the maintenance of large prison populations in the United States. Moreover, the passage of the Protect and Serve Act this past May served as a roadblock to Democrats’ complete overhaul of the president’s agenda of law and order politics and protection of law enforcement agencies. Although Congress had made attempts at passing bipartisan reform bills such as the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act in 2015, partisan pushback derailed efforts towards this bill that would have significantly alleviated the ripple effects of mass incarceration.

However, the partisan approach to criminal justice reform is set to change with the recent passage of the First Step Act. Political commentator Van Jones characterizes the support of this bipartisan bill as a broad coalition of individuals who “refused to give up” in the fight against mass incarceration. The prison reform bill helps improve prison conditions, lowers prison sentences, and reduces recidivism rates. With this bipartisan coalition, the recent passage of this legislation provides insight into how bipartisan reforms can be passed by joint efforts from both Congress and the president. As Democratic contenders announce their candidacy for the 2020 election, the fate of bipartisan criminal justice reform and the limits of its progressiveness will become significant factors in evaluating prospective candidates and their policy agendas during the election cycle.

The president has historically played a significant role in shaping criminal justice policy with long-lasting impacts on prison conditions, incarceration rates, and overall attitudes towards crime. Bill Clinton’s passage of the 1994 crime bill illustrates this phenomenon. The bill included a mandatory three-strikes life sentence law and an expanded $9.7 billion budget for prison developments across the country. This rather harsh legislation also garnered support among Democrats and Republicans who shared in their desire to be tough on crime, and its ripple effects can still be seen today with the salience of mass incarceration and the disproportionate incarceration of minority populations. Similarly, Barack Obama played a notable role in criminal justice through his reform efforts to pardon convicted individuals for non-violent drug offenses. Now, support of the increasingly popular movement to reconstruct our flawed, racially-biased criminal justice system has become a central tenet of policy platforms for those seeking public office. In this same vein, those vying for the presidential bid are also called upon to address the racial and socioeconomic inequities within the criminal justice system as a measure of their candidacy.

Photo: Al Drago, Getty Images

Kamala Harris officially announced her candidacy for president on Martin Luther King Jr. day and linked her support for the First Step Act to the incessant need to mediate the flawed features of the criminal justice system.  Despite her calls for a more radically transformed system, investigation into her prosecutorial record as both District Attorney and Attorney General in California have casted doubts on the extent to which she is able to call herself a progressive prosecutor. In upholding wrongful convictions and opposing legislation that would mandate the Attorney General’s office to investigate police shootings, her controversial record has casted doubt on whether she is committed to enacting true criminal justice reform. Candidate Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI) serves on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, with current policy platforms calling for reforms in sentencing, the juvenile justice system, and the decriminalization of human trafficking victims. Gabbard is the first Hindu and Samoan congresswoman, and led the way in passing the bipartisan Ending Federal Marijuana Prohibition Act in an effort to federally decriminalize marijuana.

Photo: Billy Calzada, San Antonio Express-News

The 2020 presidential election additionally provides a major scope of inquiry into how leaders may continue to pursue or even alter criminal justice initiatives. Former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julian Castro formally announced his presidential bid on January 12th, with his speech in San Antonio drawing an immense crowd of supporters. He went on to articulate key policy stances, with an approach to criminal justice reform that starts with immediately ending the cash bail system in order to rectify the disproportionate burden that the current cash bail system places on low income Americans and minorities. In highlighting the too often fatal police encounters that Black Americans have with police officers, Castro’s stump speech made a powerful call for change that provides insight into his commitment in shaping effective criminal justice policy.

With other 2020 contenders like Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and Cory Booker (D-NJ) also backing the First Step Act, the evolution of criminal justice policy from that of a partisan agenda to a more bipartisan initiative in Congress is tangible. Booker officially announced his presidential bid last week with a detailed plan for criminal justice reform that includes the legalization of marijuana and ending workplace discrimination against formerly incarcerated people.

With many contenders seeking to overturn the relic of law and order and the “old order” of criminal justice reform in pursuit of progressive social and criminal justice, the fate of the criminal justice system largely rests on bipartisan policy development. But at what cost does this bipartisan policy end up undermining the development of a truly progressive agenda? The success of the First Step Act points to the importance of garnering GOP support in order to implement sound criminal justice policy. In looking at the developments of policy over time from that of tough on crime policy agendas to the rectification of the system’s punitive features, now more than ever political leaders and presidents especially are charged with addressing the flaws in the nation’s criminal justice system. Thus, the platforms of Democratic nominees must be critically analyzed in order to truly assess the fate of criminal justice reform headed into 2020.


[1] “10 Reasons to Oppose ‘3 Strikes, You’re Out.’” American Civil Liberties Union, ACLU,

[2] Schor, Elana. “Warren Backs Senate’s Criminal Justice Bill.” POLITICO, POLITICO, 29 Nov. 2018,

[3] “Criminal Justice Facts.” The Sentencing Project, The Sentencing Project,

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