Beto O’Rourke unveils criminal justice reform plan


Grant Tetmeyer/Iowa State Daily

Presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke addresses supporters at the home of Ames resident Joan Bolin-Betts on July 2.

Jake Webster

Former Rep. Beto O’Rourke unveiled a plan Monday to end “mass incarceration” and reform the American criminal justice system in favor of rehabilitation.

The O’Rourke campaign issued a news release early Monday detailing the former congressman’s plan.

“It’s unacceptable that America, the home of the free, locks up more of our own than any other country on the face of the planet as we continue to have the world’s largest prison population — disproportionately comprised of people of color,” O’Rourke said in a news release. “We will not only reform this racist system but we will work to end mass incarceration by ensuring fewer Americans enter the system in the first place while prioritizing rehabilitation and successful re-entry for those who have been locked out of it — or locked up in it.”

Iowa hit an eight-year high for its imprisoned population in 2019.

O’Rourke’s plan calls for instituting sentencing reforms, repealing the 1994 “Crime Bill”, investing $500 million on a program to develop alternatives to incarceration and ending the “school to prison pipeline.” His plan also calls for prohibiting the prosecution of people under the age of 18 in adult courts and preventing juvenile incarceration in adult prisons.

The 1994 Crime Bill, officially called the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, is a topic of discussion in the 2020 Democratic presidential primaries. Sen. Cory Booker attacked former Vice President Joe Biden for his support of the legislation in the July Democratic debate.

Iowa’s incarceration rates are lower than the United States as a whole, with 568 incarcerated per 100,000 people compared to 698 per 100,000 nationally, according to the Prison Policy Initiative. Simultaneously, non-white Iowans are disproportionately incarcerated, with black Iowans incarcerated at more than 10 times the rate as white Iowans.

Black Iowans account for less than four percent of the population of Iowa but more than a quarter of the total prison population.

The plan O’Rourke released would tackle police misconduct and racial bias through Department of Justice “enforcement efforts” and limited police immunity in civil lawsuits. O’Rourke also called for increasing training on the issue of implicit bias and tying federal funding to local law enforcement agencies to the implementation of anti-discrimination and anti-profiling policies.

The release of O’Rourke’s plan coincides with a lecture set to take place at Iowa State Tuesday about how the “prison boom transformed rural America.” 

O’Rourke is scheduled to return to Ames on Nov. 5.