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On Monday, three candidates running for the Democratic presidential nomination shared the stage with formerly incarcerated community leaders at Eastern State Penitentiary Historic Site in Philadelphia, a museum that was once a prison.

Sens. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) and Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and philanthropist Tom Steyer were the three candidates to accept the invitation to the Justice Votes 2020 Town Hall, organized by Voters Organized to Educate and the Marshall Project.

It was the first time formerly incarcerated people moderated a presidential town hall, an historic opportunity for the candidates to discuss their criminal justice platform with people who’ve been directly impacted. The candidates’ presence signaled the drastic shift that has taken place in the national conversation around criminal justice, in which Democrats support major reforms including marijuana legalization, and the abolition of the death penalty and solitary confinement.

One of the moderators, VOTE Executive Director Norris Henderson, who was wrongfully incarcerated for 27 years in Louisiana State Penitentiary, said this election represents a “light that came on.”

“People started realizing now that the false rhetoric and all these different laws created the situation we find ourselves in,” Henderson said. “We can’t ‘tough on crime’ our way out of this situation.

Mass incarceration impacts people, families, and communities. Millions in our country have been affected by the broken criminal legal system. When we talk about how to fix the system, we should listen to people who�ve been directly affected by it. #JusticeVotes2020

October 28, 2019

So when Harris came on stage, moderator Vivian Nixon, executive director of College & Community Fellowship, asked her to wrestle with the ways in which her background as a prosecutor has been scrutinized and criticized as too “tough on crime.”

“I knew I wanted to be in a role where I could implement change in the criminal justice system,” Harris said. “I was elected DA back in 2003, dark ages compared to where we are now in terms of what the country understands we need by way of reform.”

Harris pointed to her Back on Track reentry program, which started in 2005, as a pretrial initiative that allowed first-time drug offenders to get a high school diploma and a job instead of being incarcerated.

“When I created that initiative people would say to me, ‘why are you giving them jobs? There are people who have not committed any offense who need jobs,’” Harris said. “‘You’re supposed to be a prosecutor which means you’re supposed to be locking people up, not letting them out.’”

Still, much of the criticism surrounding Harris has come from her more recent record, which includes criminalizing truancy as California attorney general, an initiative which targeted parents, especially from low-income and Black and Latinx families. She recently said she regrets those consequences.

Last year, she reversed her stance on legalizing recreational marijuana, which she had previously opposed.

“The war on drugs? That was a war on our people,” Harris said at the town hall.

Booker, who introduced a bill in 2017 to legalize recreational marijuana at the federal level, was asked by Forward Justice Co-Director Daryl Atkinson how the current push to build the recreational marijuana industry—the so-called “green rush”—can include the Black and brown communities who have historically been incarcerated because of marijuana.

Cory Booker takes questions from people impacted by incarceration on his record with criminal justice reform, policing.

“Do not come and talk about legalization of marijuana if you are not talking in the same sentence about expunging people’s records,” Booker said.

Booker was questioned on his own record and his oversight of the Newark Police Department during his time as mayor. During that time, he pursued an aggressive police strategy and resisted a federal probe into police brutality and misconduct.

“When I was elected mayor of the city of Newark, I inherited a police department with decades-long pattern of abuses,” Booker said. “We thought we were doing a good job but we were not.”

In a July presidential primary debate, former Vice President Joe Biden criticized Booker’s record. Biden did not attend the town hall, but his legacy of developing tough on crime policies in the 1990s has been an ongoing point of scrutiny leading up to the primary.

“The Democratic Party’s hands are not clean on the issue of criminal justice,” said Booker.

Philanthropist Tom Steyer, whose criminal justice reform platform includes creating job opportunities for reentering citizens, emphasized the existing racial disparities with incarceration and the “ban the box” movement.

“The first thing we need to do is end the discrimination,” Steyer said. “Then, the second question is what can we do to make sure that in face we give those people a chance, you know, a real chance at rehabilitation and a new start.”

The billionaire’s record of running a hedge fund that invested in private prisons has been criticized, though he now proposes eliminating private prisons.

The town hall brought together community leaders who’ve been personally impacted by incarceration and who are now at the forefront of reforming the systems that have led to mass incarceration in the United States.

“People closer to the problem are that much closer to the solution,” Henderson said. “It’s only fair that people start recognizing who will be affected by their policies one way or another.”

Alexandra Arriaga

Alex Arriaga is a reporter and writer based in Chicago. Her work focuses on how people engage and participate in democracy and how community reporting can empower that participation in different ways....