A state where black men are incarcerated at twice the rate of the national average served as the backdrop for Thursday night's PBS Democratic debate in Milwaukee -- and the important question of criminal justice reform.
“This is one of the great tragedies in our country today. We can no longer sweep it under the rug. It has to be dealt with,” Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) said.
After noting that 1 out of every 4 black children will end up in prison and calling for an end to over-policing in black communities, Sanders said seeing videos of black people killed by police is exhausting.
“I think we can all agree that we are sick and tired of seeing videos on the television of unarmed African-Americans shot and killed,” he said adding that “any police officer who breaks the law will be held accountable.”
Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton agreed that Wisconsin’s statistics are troubling and that there is work to be done. She pointed to President Barack Obama’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing as an example of policies that could push forward criminal justice reform.
“We have to restore policing that will actually protect the communities police are sworn to protect,” Clinton said, noting that most of this reform will take place at the state level.
Implicit bias training, body cameras and other systemic reforms to combat police misconduct would likely be executed at the state and local level. The federal government can’t do much outside of investigating possible civil rights violations when they arise, as well as making modest efforts to reduce the flow of military-grade weapons to police departments. Federal reforms would also have little effect on mass incarceration, as the majority of the nation's prison population is held in state prisons and local jails.
But Clinton added that there are other forms of racism -- not just those related to the criminal justice system.
"Really systemic racism in this state, as in others, education, in employment, in the kinds of factors that too often lead from a position where young people, particularly young men, are pushed out of school early, are denied employment opportunities,” she said. "So, when we talk about criminal justice reform, and ending the era of mass incarceration, we also have to talk about jobs, education, housing and other ways of helping communities.”
Sanders concurred, citing the extreme levels of poverty that plague the black community.
“When you have childhood African-American poverty rates of 35 percent, when you have youth unemployment at 51 percent, when you have unbelievable rates of incarceration -- which, by the way, leaves the children back home without a dad or even a mother -- clearly, we are looking at institutional racism,” he said. "We are looking at an economy in which the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. And sadly, in America today, in our economy, a whole lot of those poor people are African-American."
Read more updates on the Democratic debate below: