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The Intercept - October 22, 2019

“We want to let these candidates know that formerly incarcerated people, people who are convicted, represent a real tangible voting bloc that they need to be responsive to.”

A group of formerly incarcerated men and women will moderate a presidential town hall for the first time ever next week, questioning candidates about their positions on the U.S. justice system before an audience made up exclusively of people with firsthand experience of the country’s prisons and jails.

The event, to be held on October 28 at the Eastern State Penitentiary, a historic former prison in Philadelphia, aims to put questions of mass incarceration, broken courts, and racist policing at the forefront of the debate in an election season that has largely seen them eclipsed by other issues. So far, only Sens. Kamala Harris and Cory Booker have committed to be there.

If the notion that the U.S. incarcerates far too many people for far too long is by now widely recognized, those most directly impacted by the system have not always been included in conversations about how to fix it, say members of Voters Organized To Educate, a coalition of formerly incarcerated people who convened the town hall. But taking on the country’s troubled justice system has hardly been a priority for 2020 candidates — and the fact that only two have agreed to participate in the town hall is perhaps a reflection of that low priority.

“Most have not been heavily involved in the movement to end mass incarceration,” the four town hall moderators wrote in a recent op-ed, referring to the Democratic field. “At long last, the American public has started to recognize the harmful impact of tough-on-crime policies. … It is no longer a risk for Democrats to say that mass incarceration must end.”

Talk of criminal justice reform has gained steam in recent years amid a growing reckoning with the realities of an overburdened, overly punitive, and deeply unfair criminal legal system. Consequently, a bipartisan group of political actors has rallied behind moderate legislative reforms. At the state and local levels, where most criminal justice decisions are made, advocates for a more fair and humane system have helped push some progressive prosecutors into office and are now aiming to raise voters’ awareness around sheriffs and judges elections.

As the presidential primary heats up, top Democratic candidates have promised to tackle some of the system’s most egregious flaws. Nearly all support eliminating cash bail and legalizing marijuana, and several are in favor of reducing or eliminating mandatory minimum sentences and curtailing private prisons. But few have made criminal justice their signature issue, and several have careers and voting records inconsistent with the more progressive positions they are now embracing. And, formerly incarcerated organizers say, few candidates have shown readiness to engage directly with those who know the system best.

“They are not talking to us,” said Vivian Nixon, a town hall moderator and executive director of College & Community Fellowship, a group that helps formerly incarcerated women earn college degrees.

“You certainly wouldn’t have a conversation about veterans without sitting down without veteran groups — that would be absurd,” she added. “But I have never seen or heard of a candidate sitting down with people who have been directly impacted by the criminal justice system.” ...
Read full report at The Intercept