Tulsi Gabbard's speech at the Justice Forum
Tulsi Gabbard's Justice Forum speech
For so long, criminal justice reform has been a familiar talking point you hear from politicians wringing their hands over a broken system. But no action is taken. Nothing changes.
Instead, one generation after another continues to fall victim to a justice system that is fundamentally unjust.
Yet our pledge of allegiance reminds us that we are … “... one Nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.” Liberty. And Justice. For. All.
While some progress has been made, we are still so far from achieving that -- Justice for all.
Why? Because of too many in positions of power don’t care about serving the people, or serving justice. Instead, they abuse their power and the privilege of the positions they hold for their own selfish interests.
It’s so much a part of the fabric of our society that we barely bat an eye when Wall Street bankers who have cheated, gambled, and lost billions of dollars of OUR money have not served a day in prison, and are actually rewarded with million dollar bonuses.
Big pharma companies, like Purdue Pharma who cheated and lied to the American people to proliferate their highly addictive opioids on our streets, ruining people’s lives and causing the deaths of tens of thousands of people, walk away with barely a slap on the wrist … while nonviolent drug offenders are arrested, thrown in prison, shackled with a criminal record that sticks with them forever.
Mass incarceration has predominantly impacted poor people and communities of color. People’s lives ruined because of one mistake … while others whose entire careers are built on predatory behavior and the exploitation of the innocent ... are routinely excused.
This is not justice.
Justice must be blind - true justice does not care how much money you make, or what car you drive, or the color of your skin or what your job is. If it’s not ok to steal, it’s not ok for anyone to steal. It doesn’t suddenly become ok because you stole billions of dollars instead of $100 dollars.
Let’s start with the prison industrial complex.
For-profit prisons are a multi-billion dollar industry. Government agencies spend $80 billion a year on incarceration, and more than half of it goes to for-profit contractors. When we have a market incentive that encourages private companies to profit from incarceration, keeping those cells occupied, creating the largest prison population in the world, something is terribly wrong.
As President, I will end this corruption, get rid of private prisons and work to fundamentally transform our prison system.
Anyone who has come in contact with our prison system in any way knows that it is deeply broken. Not only does our prison system fail to fulfill its function of deterring and correcting crime, it is the central driver of a conveyor belt that sucks our youth into an ever increasing spiral of offenses, punishment and collateral consequences.
Every woman of color in this country who has a child knows that proximity to the prison system is one of the single biggest threats to her child’s life, safety and future. It does not have to be this way.
Our corrections system must exist to actually and effectively correct criminal behavior -- by creating an environment and teaching skills that reinforce better choices instead of reinforcing our worst instincts, reinforce stronger community relationships instead of breaking down family and community connections, reinforce positive role models instead of sending our young people and the most vulnerable in our society into an environment that rewards depravity and cruelty.
So it’s not enough to talk about prison reform. Making changes around the edges will not address the urgent need of building a prison system that upholds justice, that serves our people and our communities. We need a complete overhaul of the way we think about prison, who we select to work in and manage our prison system and what outcomes we expect, how we measure success.
Let’s imagine, for a moment, that we as a nation have a corrections system that works actively for the rehabilitation and restoration to society of those who have fallen victim to poverty, abuse and addiction, those who have made poor choices and victimized others, those who lack the skills and resources needed to succeed lawfully and legally. Let’s imagine that we have a corrections system that is a source of relief to parents and educators - because it represents the best of our learning as a society about how to intervene and correct misguided and maladaptive behavior.
We’ve got a bail and court fee system that punishes the poor, those who can’t come up with the cash by putting them in jail to await trial -- sometimes for months or years. But ... if you have the money, you can buy your freedom and return home. The convicted prison population is 2.1 million, but the number of Americans admitted to jail to await trial each year is about 12 million. That’s one in 27 Americans.
As President, I will end this destructive system, pass the End Money Bail Act, and provide resources directly to states and counties to implement a pre-trial money-free system that will both end money bail and lower jail populations, ensure safe communities, and save taxpayer dollars.
We often talk about how our children are our future. Let’s back that talk up with action. Invest in education, ensuring that our kids, no matter where they grow up, are getting the quality education they deserve.
As President, I will shut down the school-to-prison pipeline which too often begins with our children entering the criminal justice system while at school. We need to end the “Zero tolerance” policies that fail to differentiate between disciplinary issues that should be handled within the school vs criminal acts against the law. There must be a national standard of training for school resource officers to ensure that those entrusted with caring for and protecting our kids at school are best equipped to do so, and we must provide the resources necessary for teachers and school counselors to provide mentorship and help for those who may be struggling with other issues.
The failed war on drugs has caused a generation of Americans to be turned into criminals. We have seen too many of our friends, family members and neighbors fall victim to this disastrous war.
A few months ago, I met a young man from Virginia named Henry, going to school, working to earn a computer science degree … charged with minor non-violent drug violation related to marijuana … because of mandatory minimums he was sent to prison for two back to back 5 year sentences. His cellmate was in prison for killing someone, and got out before he did.
Our drug laws have failed us. too many of our brothers and sisters are still incarcerated because of the 1994 crime bill.
As President, I will abolish mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug offenses -- an effort which has broad bipartisan support.
We must end the failed war on drugs -- beginning with ending the federal prohibition of marijuana. I have the only bipartisan bill in Congress to do just that.
For non-violent drug offenders who have already been convicted, I will work for clemency reform, including expunging the criminal records of individuals convicted of nonviolent drug offenses.
And I will never sign another mandatory minimum policy into law that takes discretion away from judges.
The passage of the First Step Act shows us what is possible when we work together in a non-partisan way, coming together to put the wellbeing of people ahead of partisan interests. It did not include everything we hoped, but thousands of people incarcerated largely because of these mandatory minimum laws are now FREE as a result … and have been able to go home to their families.
The first step has been taken. Now we must focus on the next steps so we can continue making progress in this long march toward justice and equality for all in America.
We must enact real sentencing reforms, and further reduce recidivism rates by focusing on the rehabilitation that is supposed to happen in prison -- that’s why the state agencies are called “Department of Corrections.”
As President, I will leverage technology and monitoring capabilities to make house arrest and work-release viable options for more nonviolent offenders. Incarceration should be a matter of degree: severe for violent offenders, and a range of creative options for nonviolent offenders - ones that may allow them to work, study, contribute, and change their lives.
It is outrageous that when multimillionaire Jeffrey Epstein went to jail in Florida for molesting underage girls, he was allowed to leave prison 12 hours a day six days a week on work release, and even allowed to return to his mansion while still serving time.
Why not have house arrest and work-release options for ordinary Americans who commit nonviolent offenses, instead of only offering it as a loophole for the rich and powerful to exploit?
Throwing nonviolent offenders into a toxic prison system full of violence robs them of whatever family or employment structure they might have, and traps them in a spiral that can lead to more crime.
By keeping them with their families wherever possible, and providing support systems for them, we can help them turn their lives around and strengthen the communities they call home.
Inside prisons, we need to focus on rehabilitation: education, vocational training, mental health services and family visitation. Setting people up for success where upon their release, they are able to find a job and a place to live, so they can escape the shackles of the past and move forward with their lives.
The first line of defense of justice for all is law enforcement. Unfortunately, police violence in poor communities and communities of color is commonplace.
Mothers and fathers have to teach their children to be careful around law enforcement simply because of the color of their skin.
Prosecutors wield a great deal of power and often lack the training and understanding necessary to be fair arbiters of our justice system. This needs to change.
Public defenders are the last line of defense for ensuring due process and fair adjudication for all Americans, including those who can’t afford a lawyer. But they suffer under crushing caseloads and draconian budget cuts. This must change.
For those who abuse their power, I will hold them accountable. As president, I will appoint an Attorney General who will vigorously investigate and prosecute abuses of power, whether it comes from law enforcement officers or prosecutors. This unfortunately occurs too often, and goes unnoticed and unpunished. I will build a culture of accountability in law enforcement that extends to the highest levels.
We must make sure that we are hiring law enforcement officers and prosecutors who have empathy, and truly want to be of service, to care for and protect all Americans. This attitude of service must be cultivated and reinforced throughout their careers.
Otherwise “Serve and Protect” will be just a slogan -- completely disconnected from reality.
All the legal reforms in the world won’t solve the problem if we have people in positions of power who abuse that power because they lack this servant attitude.
I will lead the way in building a culture of trust by bringing law enforcement and communities together, building upon what we know works with community policing. Creating a culture of leadership within my administration and our country based on the values and principles of service above self — putting the wellbeing of the people of our nation at the forefront.
To heal the deep divisive wounds that exist in our country will require something that we unfortunately haven’t seen for a while – Americans United, coming together as a nation to stand up to injustice and mustering the political will to change it.
The abuses of our criminal justice system aren’t partisan issues. The safety of our communities, the integrity of our police and prosecutors and judges, the justice of our laws and the humaneness of our prison system, affects all Americans.
Forget the politics. Politicizing criminal justice is what brought us to this point to begin with. If we want justice, for all Americans, all Americans need to come together and demand it.
I come from the most diverse state in the nation where people of color and those of mixed race like myself make up the majority and we are united and inspired by what we in Hawaii call the aloha spirit. Aloha … recognition that we are all children of God … all brothers and sisters regardless of race, religion or orientation … treating each other with respect, care and compassion.
When Martin Luther King visited Hawaii in 1959, he was so moved by what he saw there … He said, “You can never know what it means to those of us caught for the moment in the tragic and often dark midnight of man’s inhumanity to man to come to a place where we see the glowing daybreak of freedom and dignity and racial justice.”
That’s why I am running for President -- I see that glowing daybreak of freedom … I know that we can emerge from this dark midnight of inhumanity and together strive toward that more perfect union with justice and dignity for all Americans.
It’s up to us.
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
Endowed by our creator with rights ….
Rights that no one can take away.
As president, I will lead every single day inspired by these principles, serving the interests of all the American people.
I will stand up for the rights and freedoms of all Americans, upholding the principles of our Constitution that our country was founded upon.
Bringing the unifying spirit of love for our country and the soldier’s values of putting service above self to the White House, leading a government that is truly of, by, and for the people.