NASHUA, N.H. — Criminal justice — an issue thrust into the Democratic primary fight by bipartisan legislative efforts in Washington and Black Lives Matter activists on the campaign trail — has emerged as one of the clearest divides between former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and independent Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders in their quest for the presidency.
In short, Sanders says the racial disparities in the justice system cannot be remedied without ending the federal war on marijuana and banning the death penalty. Clinton is not ready to change federal law on marijuana and says the death penalty is an important tool in the belt of federal prosecutors.
As Sanders criss-crossed New Hampshire Friday, his campaign bracketed her criminal justice policy rollout in Atlanta with a statement saying Clinton wasn't going far enough.
"When we talk about criminal justice reform, we also need to understand that millions of people have been arrested for using marijuana," Sanders said in the statement, adding, "Any serious criminal justice reform must include removing marijuana from the Controlled Substances Act."
Sanders debuted his new, sharper-elbowed rhetoric against Clinton at the Jefferson-Jackson Dinner in Iowa earlier this week.
Sanders also said the death penalty needs to go, a position his aides are quick to point out he's held publicly since 1991. In the statement Sanders said the U.S. needs to join "every other major democracy in eliminating the death penalty" if there is to be "real criminal justice reform."
Both the marijuana policy and the call for a death penalty ban are connected to Sanders' plan to attack what both Clinton and Sanders have said are racial inequities in the justice system. When he rolled out his support for decriminalizing marijuana last week, he did it by focusing on an arrest rate that shows black people are far more likely than whites to get busted for pot, despite equal usage rates.
When Sanders took to the Senate floor to talk about the death penalty recently, he said continuing its use perpetuated the violence it tries to prevent.
"We are all shocked and disgusted by some of the horrific murders that we see in this country, seemingly every week," he said. "And that is precisely why we should abolish the death penalty. At a time of rampant violence and murder, the State should not be part of that process."
The death penalty policy, while not expressly tied to race in the statement, has racial justice overtones as well, said Symone Sanders, national press secretary for the Sanders campaign.
"The Senator is vey much aware of the racial disparity for the death penalty," she told BuzzFeed News. Criminal justice advocates on the left like the ACLU have long pointed to a number of factors in the use of the death penalty they say show it's more likely to affect minority defendants than white ones.
Including marijuana decriminalization is crucial for any efforts to reduce the racial disparities in the criminal justice system, the Sanders aide said.
"We cannot talk about ending the disgrace that is the mass incarceration of African Americans in the country if we don’t also include real change to our marijuana policy," Symone Sanders said.