Brown And Black Presidential Forum: Criminal Justice Reform

Brown And Black Presidential Forum: Criminal Justice Reform

Democratic hopefuls address our broken justice system.

Published January 22nd

Written by Sasha Horne

As the Democratic presidential hopefuls gear up for the Iowa caucuses in February, the candidates gathered in Des Moines on Jan. 20 to share their strategy on how to tackle some of the most pressing issues impacting people of color today. 

Nearly one-third of voters heading to the polls this November will identify as a race other than white, a recent Pew study found, which makes this year’s Brown and Black Forum especially relevant. 

Dedicated to addressing issues facing communities of color, the Brown and Black Forum, hosted by VICE News and Cashmere Originals on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, raised questions and topics addressing some of the most significant issues impacting Black and LatinX Millennials and Generation-Zers.  

Candidates who participated in the Forum included former Vice President Joe Biden, Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, Sen. Michael Bennet of Colorado, former Vice President Joe Biden, former Mayor Pete Buttigieg, former Rep. John Delaney of Maryland, and Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota. Entrepreneur Andrew Yang and Rep. Tulsi Gabbard are the lone minorities in the running after both New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker and California Sen. Kamala Harris exited the race.

The Forum, which was first held in 1984, was moderated by VICE News correspondents Antonia Hylton, Alzo Slade, Paola Ramos, Dexter Thomas, David Noriega, Krishna Andavolu, and Roberto Ferdman.

One by one candidates entered the stage to answer what spectators deemed “tougher questions than any of the debates” from the moderators. 

Candidates also took questions from members of the audience, which allowed them to directly answer the questions on the minds of voters. Each segment closed with a rapid fire Q&A with topics on the lighter side.

For young men of color, use of fatal force by police is among the leading causes of death. 

Systemic racism ingrained in the criminal justice system leads to the unfair punishment of communities of color including burdens to taxpayers and a tremendous social cost that can be felt for generations.

Here’s what the candidates had to say about criminal justice reform at the Brown and Black Forum.

Michael Bennet

Michael Bennet, the senator from Colorado, was the first to take the stage in Des Moines. If you aren’t sure who Bennet is or didn’t know he was even in the race, you are not alone. 

Moderator Alzo Slade wasted no time addressing the elephant in the room: Bennet’s lack of name recognition with minority voters.

New York Magazine described you as ‘the bland white guy you’ve never heard of’...yet you are still here,” Slade said.

“I’m still here because I believe our democracy is at risk... I’m still here because we’ve had 50 years with no economic mobility for 90 percent of the population,” Bennet explained.

“I’m not as well-known as other candidates and my name recognition has been an issue in my campaign, but I do think the ideas I’m advancing in this campaign are the ones that will make the biggest difference for kids living in poverty in this country.”

Touting himself as the only candidate in this race that has won two national elections (in purple states, which is a difficult thing to do), Bennet went on to explain his experience working with communities of color in Denver.

One topic that did not come up directly while Bennet was on stage was criminal justice reform. 

We did some digging to see where Bennet stood on some of the other important topics for minority voters, like criminal justice reform. 

Here’s what we found:

When it comes to criminal justice, Bennet was a sponsor for the justice reform First Step Act bill in 2016, which limited juvenile solitary confinement and reduced minimum sentences for some repeat non-violent drug crimes.

Pete Buttigieg

Up next at the Forum was Pete Buttigieg, whose campaign promises include reducing the number of people incarcerated by 50% on both the state and federal levels.

On stage, the former mayor of South Bend faced renewed scrutiny over policing during his time in office.

Moderator Antonia Hylton questioned his decision to terminate the city’s first Black police chief, an action Buttigieg defended.

“I get a lot of questions about why I removed a Black police chief, almost never do I get a question about why I appointed a Black police chief in the first place,” Buttigieg said, citing a federal investigation as the reason for his decision. 

While in Des Moines, Buttigieg also outlined his Frederick Douglass Plan, which calls for doubling the funding for federal grants so Black and Brown students are able to support themselves while completing school. The plan also includes an overhaul of the criminal justice system, which includes legalizing marijuana and retroactively reducing sentences for drug offenses.


When John Delaney, the former U.S. Representative from Maryland's 6th congressional district, took the stage, he found himself defending his decision to invest $10 million dollars of his personal wealth to run his campaign. 

“I don’t think there's anything else I can do that is better than trying to fight for the future of our country,” he told VICE moderator Slade.

Delaney’s position is that more needs to be done to reform the criminal justice system.

Not only does Delaney support an end to mandatory minimums, he also opposes charging juveniles as adults and ending or limiting the use of money bail in the federal criminal justice system.

Another major aspect of Delaney’s plan for criminal justice reform includes a focus directly on police. Delaney wants to use federal funding for training and support for police officers designed to prevent racial profiling and encourage de-escalation. 

He also wants to restore the Department of Justice’s authority to intervene in local police departments with a pattern of abuse and misconduct, which was an Obama administration priority.


Fresh off the campaign trail from South Carolina where the Black vote is very much in play, former Vice President Joe Biden was quick to call into question polls that showed Senator Bernie Sanders closing in on his top spot. 

“I am leading everybody, combined, with Black voters,” Biden announced boldly. 

While Sanders is polling ahead of the former Vice President with Black voters under the age of 35, Biden remains the front runner with African-American voters in most polls.

It’s worth noting viewership of the Forum on the VICE News Facebook page piqued at more than 17,000 viewers once Biden took the stage. 

When pressed on why his message seems to resonate with voters of color, “it’s because I know them and I understand them,” he said. 

In the 1980s and '90s, Biden was one of several Democratic leaders who spearheaded America’s war on drugs. Over time, however, his opinions have shifted. 

Ironically, Biden’s new criminal justice reform plan reverses some of the very policies he helped make law. Biden is committed to legalizing marijuana, eliminating mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent crimes, ending the death penalty, abolishing private prisons, eliminating cash bail, and discourages the incarceration of children.


Closing out the forum was Senator Amy Klobuchar. The former prosecutor from Hennepin County, Minnesota, had this to say after moderators pointedly called out her role directly at the front lines of mass incarceration of Black and Brown people. 

Klobuchar’s Frank response: with life experience, her ideology has evolved. 

“I now understand that there is indeed persistent and institutional racism in the criminal justice system,” Klobuchar explained on stage. 

Klobuchar’s strategy on how to fix these systematic disparities is reforming criminal sentencing, making body cameras mandatory and ensuring the staffing in the prosecutor's office reflects the community in which it serves. 

Klobuchar’s plan also includes setting up a new system for clemency, which she believes will lead to the release of thousands of people with long prison sentences who’ve shown signs of rehabilitation.

The Brown & Black Forum kept candidates on a strict time limit, so not every candidate had the chance to address every issue. Read on to learn where some of the other presidential hopefuls stand on criminal justice reform.


Senator Elizabeth Warren’s plan to reform the criminal justice system focuses on unwinding most of the 1994 crime bill, which introduced mandatory minimum sentences on nonviolent offenders, funneling billions of dollars toward prison construction and causing the United States to become the world’s largest mass incarcerator.

Warren’s criminal justice proposal highlights the disproportionate rates that minority communities have suffered under the current system. Her plan includes decriminalizing marijuana, ending cash bail and fighting the overcriminalization crisis.


Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders advocacy of racial justice can be traced back to the civil rights movement when he was a student leader of the Congress of Racial Equality in Chicago and was arrested during protests on one occasion.

Sanders points out that this has disproportionately hurt Black and Brown Americans, who face racial disparities in arrests, incarceration, police use of force, and other kinds of law enforcement.

His criminal justice reform plan covers a variety of issues, including eliminating long prison sentences, ending cash bail, legalizing marijuana and and banning private and for-profit prisons.


As the only remaining candidate of color, Andrew Yang faced criticism on Monday for using self deprecating humor in the form of stereotypical jokes about the Asian community. 

Yang maintained finding humor in differences can serve as a way to bring people together.

In addition to ending the use of for-profit, private prisons and legalizing marijuana, Yang supports a reconsideration of the harshness of the nation’s felony laws, including an investigation into any civil rights issues raised by the disproportionate amount of minorities convicted of these crimes. 

Yang stops short of calling for the end of pretrial cash bail, instead opting to decrease it, opting to fund programs targeted at reducing recidivism and increasing reintegration for convicted felons.

(Photo: Getty Images)


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