In late October, presidential candidates and formerly incarcerated people came together in the historic Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia to discuss criminal justice reform. “Justice Votes 2020: A Presidential Town Hall” was a joint effort of several organizations, such as Voters Organized to Educate (VOTE) and The Marshall Project, and was live streamed via NowThis.

Norris Henderson, the founder and executive opened the event highlighting the historic event and location. Eastern State Penitentiary was one of the first prisons in the United States, which focused on solitude and repentance.

Before presidential candidates were interviewed, a discussion to “set the table” was facilitated by author and organizer Asha Bandele. The panel consisted of several formerly incarcerated people who have dedicated their life to reforming the criminal justice system since their release.

Each candidate was interviewed by a member of the VOTE advisory board, their conversation was moderated by MSNBC journalist Ari Melber with additional questions from the audience, who was comprised of formerly incarcerated persons and their loved ones.

Sen. Kamala Harris (D-California), was the first candidate to be interviewed by the Rev. Vivian Nixon, board member and Executive Director of College & Community Fellowship, Harris referenced her reform plan, which was mentioned several times as it related to ending mass incarceration and protecting vulnerable populations. She said reforming the criminal justice system is one of the reasons she chose to run for president.

Philanthropist Tom Steyer was the second candidate to be interviewed by DeAnna Hoskins. In addition to being a VOTE advisory board member and president and CEO of JustLeadershipUSA, she was the featured speaker at our annual meeting in October. Although Steyer’s campaign has focused more on climate change, he does have several criminal justice policies outlined on his website.

Sen. Cory Booker (D-New Jersey) was the last candidate to be interviewed. Questions were asked by Daryl Atkinson, VOTE board member and co-director of Forward Justice. Booker highlighted his work in the Senate such as introducing the Next Step Act that includes sentencing reform, improved prison conditions and reentry programming.  His reform plan echoes many of these concerns with a focus on the decriminalization of marijuana and expungement of records.

Each candidate was asked why they had chosen to attend the event. Harris spoke on the importance of redemption. Steyer said it was his honor and responsibility to be there.  Booker called out the other presidential candidates who were not in attendance. Each candidate touted criminal justice reform efforts they have engaged in.

Questions from the interviewers and from audience members covered a broad range of topics; each candidate having to respond to a question regarding past actions. Harris, a former San Francisco prosecutor was asked about her less-than=progressive prosecution practices. Steyer was questioned on his former investment in Corrections Corporation of America (now rebranded as CoreCivic), which he later sold. And Booker was asked about his support for incarcerated persons right to vote while incarcerated: he supported this action, but only for nonviolent offenders.

Several themes recurred throughout the discussion. One was the need for caution when discussing violent and nonviolent offenses, specifically pitting them against each other. Additionally, people stressed the importance of voting rights and access to government benefits such as student loans, food assistance and public housing. The most prominent theme was the need to work in collaboration with those most directly impacted by the justice system in order to reform it.

After the candidates were interviewed, there was another panel of formerly incarcerated persons to reflect on what the candidates had said. And the closing was done by Norris Henderson, who quoted civil rights lawyer and activist Bryan Stevenson in highlighting the need “to be proximate.” That in order to make the changes needed, policy makers must be proximate to those who have been impacted by the criminal justice system.

Further summary of the event is available here.

Safe & Just Michigan agrees that formerly incarcerated persons need to be at the forefront of policy change regarding the system that has impacted their lives so profoundly.


~Anne Mahar
Research Specialist