Tulsi Gabbard

Justice for All - Oct. 26, 2019

Tulsi Gabbard
October 26, 2019— Columbia, South Carolina
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The issue we are gathered here to talk about is so important and impacts all of us. For so long, we have heard politicians paying lip service to the issue of criminal justice reform, it is a familiar talking point, but what is actually done about it. There’s no real action, no real serious changes being made. Instead, one generation after another continues to fall victim to a justice system that is fundamentally unjust. So we think to our pledge of allegiance that we’ve said over and over throughout our lives, it reminds us that we are “... one Nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”

Justice. For. All.

So, while some progress has been made, we can all agree that we are still so far from achieving that objective of justice for all. Why is that? It’s because too often we have people in positions of power who don’t care about serving the people. They don’t care about actually serving justice. Instead, they are abusing their positions of power and privilege for their own selfish interests. It’s unfortunately become 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. We have big pharmaceutical companies, like Purdue Pharma who cheated and lied to the American people just so they can proliferate their highly addictive opioid drugs on our streets, ruining people’s lives and causing the deaths of tens of thousands of people, yet what happens to them? They walk away, they get a slap on the wrist. Meanwhile, on the other hand, we have nonviolent drug offenders arrested, thrown in prison, shackled with a criminal record that will follow them wherever they go forever. These are just two examples of this fundamentally unjust system that we have.

We have mass incarceration that 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 to steal because you stole billions of dollars instead of $100 dollars.

Let’s start with the prison industrial complex. We have 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. So we have a market incentive that actually encourages private companies to profit from incarceration, to keep those cells full, creating the largest prison population in the world. Something is very terribly wrong with this system.

As President, I will end this corruption, end 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 knows, who has a child, that proximity to the prison system is one of the single biggest threats to her child’s life, safety and future. In the United States of America, it must not 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 and the way that we select to work in and manage our prison system, what outcomes we expect, how do we truly measure and define success. Let’s imagine, for a moment, that we have a corrections system that works actively for the rehabilitation and restoration to society of those who have fallen victim to poverty, abuse, 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 have 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. If you have the money, you can buy your freedom, go home. The convicted prison population is around 2.1 million, but the number of Americans admitted to jail just to await their trial is about 12 million. That’s one in 27 Americans. Look around you, 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 and they are. Let’s back that talk up with action. Let’s actually make the kinds of investments in education that will ensure that our kids, no matter where they grow up, are getting the quality education that they need and that 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 in schools with teachers and counselors vs the criminal acts that are actually against the law. There has to be a national standard of training for school resource officers to ensure that those entrusted with the incredible responsibility of taking care of our kids and protecting them are best equipped to do so, and provide the resources necessary for teachers and school counselors who are in that position to provide mentorship and help to kids who may be dealing with other situations that are complex and sometimes out of their grasp.

The failed war on drugs has caused a generation of people, families, children to be impacted negatively, a generation of Americans turned into criminals. We have seen too many of our friends, family members and neighbors who have fallen victim to this disastrous war. It’s hard to meet someone who doesn’t have their own personal experience with someone who’s gone through this difficult challenge. A few months ago in Washington, I had a chance to meet with a young man named Henry, he was from the state of Virginia. Ten or 12 years prior he had been going to college and studying for a computer science degree, when he was arrested and charged with minor non-violent drug violation, having to do with marijuana possession. Now because of mandatory minimum laws in that state, he was sent to prison for two back to back 5 year sentences, with no opportunity for parole. His cellmate was someone who had killed someone else, and that cellmate got out of prison before he did. Mandatory minimums for a non-violent drug possession charge. We see how our drug laws have failed us, so many of our brothers and sisters still incarcerated now because of the 1994 crime bill that was passed. As President, I will abolish mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug offenses -- an effort which now increasingly has bipartisan support and is ready for passage. We must end the failed war on drugs -- and we start doing this by ending the federal marijuana prohibition. I have the only bipartisan bill in Congress that would accomplish 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.

Now, not too long ago we saw the passage of the First Step Act through congress. This whole conference has been called the Second Step Forum right, we passed the first step and we did so because of bi-partisan support. We saw people coming together from the left and the right, Democrats and Republicans coming together to put the wellbeing of people ahead of partisan interests. You hear some criticisms say this didn’t go far enough, it didn’t include everything we hoped. But I’ll tell you what, thousands of our brothers and sisters, people who were incarcerated largely because of these mandatory minimum laws are now FREE today because of the passage of that act, don’t tell them that this didn’t make an impact on their lives. So the first step has been taken. Now we must focus on what the next steps are so we can continue making progress on this long march towards true justice and equality for all Americans. We must enact real sentencing reforms, and further reduce recidivism rates that we have in this country by actually focusing on the rehabilitation that is supposed to happen in prison. Now these state agencies are called “Department of Corrections” for a reason, but that mission is so far not being fulfilled. As President, I will leverage technology and monitoring capabilities, making house arrest and work-release viable options for nonviolent offenders. Because in my view when we look at incarceration, it should be a matter of degree: severe for violent offenders, and really look at what are the creative options for nonviolent offenders allowing them to work, study, contribute, and actually see how they can better themselves and change their lives.

Now let’s look at what happened recently in Florida. You have a multimillionaire named Jeffrey Epstein who went to jail in Florida for molesting 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 he was “serving time.” Why not have house arrest and work-release options ready for everyday Americans who commit nonviolent offenses, instead of only offering these options as a loophole for the rich and powerful to exploit? Throwing nonviolent offenders into what is often a toxic prison system that is filled with violence, robs them of their family structure, employment structure and traps them into a spiral that can often lead to more crime. By providing them with the opportunity to keep them with their families wherever possible, providing support systems for them, we can help them turn their lives around and strengthen the communities they call home. Inside prisons, let's actually focus on rehabilitation: providing educational opportunities, vocational training, mental health services and more family visitation opportunity. Setting people up for success so when they have served their time and they are released back into the community, back to their homes, 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, we see too often police violence in poor communities and communities of color has become commonplace. Mothers and fathers have to teach their children to be careful around law enforcement, being fearful 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 justice. This needs to change. Public defenders who are charged with being the last line of defense for ensuring due process and fair adjudication for all Americans, including and especially for those who can’t afford a lawyer. But they are crushed by huge caseloads and draconian budget cuts, making it difficult for them to fulfill their charge. 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. As we look across the country unfortunately, these abuses too often go unnoticed and unpunished. I will build a culture of accountability in law enforcement that extends to the highest levels. Because we must make sure that starting from the beginning, 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 not only exist on day one when you start the job but it’s got to be cultivated and reinforced throughout their careers. Because otherwise this motto of “Serve and Protect” will be just a slogan -- completely disconnected from the reality of their everyday lives.

When it comes right down to it, all the legal reforms in the world, the legislation that we can pass, they won’t solve the problem if we have people in positions of power who abuse that power because they lack this servant attitude. This is the core attitude that’s necessary for the real change that we need to see. I look forward to leading the way in building a culture of trust that brings law enforcement and communities together, building upon what we know already 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 at the forefront of all that we do.

To heal the deep divisive wounds that exist in our country will require something that we unfortunately haven’t seen for awhile – it will require us as Americans standing 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, they don’t discriminate whether you’re Democrat or Republican. 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 predicament that we are in today. 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 of the population and we are united and inspired by what we in Hawaii call Aloha, the aloha spirit. Aloha spirit recognizes that we are all children of God, that we are all brothers and sisters regardless of race, religion or orientation or anything else and we treat each other with respect, care and compassion. When Martin Luther King visited Hawaii in 1959, he was so moved by what he experienced and saw there. He gave a speech before our state legislature at that time and he said, “You can never know what it means to those of us caught for the moment in the dark and often tragic 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. But, it’s up to us, that future is 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 the American people. Standing up for the rights and freedoms of all Americans, upholding the principles of our Constitution upon which our country was founded on. Bringing the unifying spirit of love for our country and the soldier’s values of service above self to the White House, truly leading a government that is of the people, by the people, and for the people. Thank you so much for your work and your leadership and thank you for being here today. Mahalo. Thank you.