How Cory Booker’s Criminal Justice Push Could Boost His Presidential Hopes

No Democratic hopeful has made criminal justice reform the focus of a candidacy.

Sen. Cory Booker at a news conference celebrating the passage of a criminal justice reform bill on December 19Alex Edelman/CNP/ZUMA

Let our journalists help you make sense of the noise: Subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily newsletter and get a recap of news that matters.

Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) released a sweeping package of criminal justice proposals Thursday, calling for sentence reductions, marijuana legalization, and more employment opportunities and voting rights for ex-offenders. The bill, which he calls the Next Step Act, pushes his colleagues in Washington to do more to address injustices in the criminal justice system. But it also helps make the case for his own presidential candidacy.

As the Democratic primary field grows crowded—12 candidates are already running, two have exploratory committees, and others, like former Vice President Joe Biden, are poised to run—the candidates are struggling to distinguish themselves and win over a plurality of primary voters. A criminal justice reform agenda could be Booker’s ticket to top-tier status, particularly if it helps him win over the black voters who comprise such a key share of the Democratic electorate.

Kamala Harris, a leading contender and the other black candidate in the race, is a former prosecutor with a largely liberal record that nonetheless includes tough-on-crime stances that critics see as regressive and unfair to people of color. Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) is also a former prosecutor. Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) are staunch progressives, but both approach the issue of inequality largely through critiques of the economic system and abuses by the financial sector and big companies. To many Democrats, criminal justice reform offers a missing answer to the question of why society is so unjust, one that focuses more on systemic racism.

Justice reform has become a major issue for Democrats, but its emphasis on fairness, redemption, and scaling back government overreach also appeals to a subset of Republicans. In December, Congress overwhelmingly passed a sentencing reform bill with support from a majority of Republicans. Some influential conservatives, like the Koch brothers, want to see more reform.

But criminal justice reform is a particular issue of concern to people of color. Since the Democratic primary winner will need significant support from the African American voters who make up much of the Democratic Party in the South, Booker may have found a way to stand out to the Democratic base on the campaign trail while appealing to a bipartisan coalition nationally.

Booker’s legislation, which he introduced with Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-N.J.), contains a long list of reforms favored by criminal justice advocates to end racial disparities that result from mass incarceration of people of color. Among other things, the bill seeks to eliminate the sentencing disparity between crack cocaine (seen as a drug used in the black community) and powder cocaine (used in wealthier white communities) and end the disenfranchisement of former felons, a problem that disproportionately affects African Americans. The bill also includes provisions to address racial profiling and police brutality.

When introducing the legislation, Booker spoke of the bipartisan efforts to reform criminal justice and his hope that his bill would garner widespread support. Last week, he reintroduced legislation to legalize marijuana and rebuild communities devastated by the war on drugs—a bill that Harris, Warren, Sanders, and other 2020 hopefuls co-sponsored. 

All of the Democratic presidential contenders have embraced criminal justice reform. But none have made it the central focus of a candidacy. With this bill, Booker could be taking the first step toward doing exactly that. 

IT'S NOT THAT WE'RE SCREWED WITHOUT TRUMP:

"It's that we're screwed with or without him if we can't show the public that what we do matters for the long term," writes Mother Jones CEO Monika Bauerlein as she kicks off our drive to raise $350,000 in donations from readers by July 17.

This is a big one for us. It's our first time asking for an outpouring of support since screams of FAKE NEWS and so much of what Trump stood for made everything we do so visceral. Like most newsrooms, we face incredibly hard budget realities, and it's unnerving needing to raise big money when traffic is down.

So, as we ask you to consider supporting our team's journalism, we thought we'd slow down and check in about where Mother Jones is and where we're going after the chaotic last several years. This comparatively slow moment is also an urgent one for Mother Jones: You can read more in "Slow News Is Good News," and if you're able to, please support our team's hard-hitting journalism and help us reach our big $350,000 goal with a donation today.

payment methods

IT'S NOT THAT WE'RE SCREWED WITHOUT TRUMP:

"It's that we're screwed with or without him if we can't show the public that what we do matters for the long term," writes Mother Jones CEO Monika Bauerlein as she kicks off our drive to raise $350,000 in donations from readers by July 17.

This is a big one for us. So, as we ask you to consider supporting our team's journalism, we thought we'd slow down and check in about where Mother Jones is and where we're going after the chaotic last several years. This comparatively slow moment is also an urgent one for Mother Jones: You can read more in "Slow News Is Good News," and if you're able to, please support our team's hard-hitting journalism and help us reach our big $350,000 goal with a donation today.

payment methods

We Recommend

Latest

Sign up for our free newsletter

Subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily to have our top stories delivered directly to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.

Subscribe

Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.

Donate