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Rep. Chris Taylor in the Assembly chamber at the State Capitol in Madison on Thursday, November 9, 2017. PHOTO BY MICHELLE STOCKER

Criminal justice reform is on the agenda, finally.

The Democratic presidential contenders have had a lot to say on the issue, and it’s likely that they’ll say more at this week’s debate in Houston. And what they are saying makes sense. Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who has a savvy plan to dial back mass incarceration while at the same time addressing concerns about crime, reminds us that, “by spending our budgets not on imprisonment but on community services that lift people up, we’ll decarcerate and make our communities safer.”

Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders unveiled his plan last month, with an announcement that, “we are going to end the international embarrassment of having more people in jail than any other country on earth. Instead of spending $80 billion a year on jails and incarceration, we are going to invest in jobs and education for our young people. No more private prisons and detention centers. No more profiteering from locking people up. No more ‘war on drugs.’ No more keeping people in jail because they’re too poor to afford cash bail.”

New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker proposes to undo decades of damage by using pardon and clemency powers to free “an estimated 17,000-plus nonviolent drug offenders serving unjust and excessive sentences.”

Booker has been a prime mover on criminal justice reform in the Senate, proving that bipartisan progress can be achieved even in these divided times. In his campaign, he has placed a special emphasis on ending the failed drug war — a longtime goal of this newspaper. We celebrate his proposal to “decriminalize marijuana, expunge records, and restore justice to individuals and communities that have been devastated by the War on Drugs,” to “extend clemency to individuals serving excessive sentences for nonviolent drug offenses,” to “eliminate the racially-targeted sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine” and to “end harsh mandatory minimums for nonviolent drug offenses.”

But presidential candidates are not the only ones who are making criminal justice reform an issue.

We are extremely impressed with the “Police Exercising Absolute Care With Everyone (PEACE) Act of 2019,” which has been introduced by Reps. William Lacy Clay, D-Missouri, and Ro Khanna, D-California. The PEACE Act proposes to alter the federal standard for the use of force by federal officers in a manner that would require that force be used only when necessary to prevent imminent death or serious bodily injury.

“It is past time to end a legal standard for use of force that permits Americans to be killed as a first resort — rather than only when absolutely necessary — and with little accountability,” Khanna said. “This disproportionately impacts African Americans, who make up only 13% of the U.S. population but account for 25% of those Americans tragically shot and killed by police each year. Immediately resorting to lethal force rather than using proven de-escalation tactics increases risks for both citizens and police officers. We have to do more than change the rhetoric: we have to change the laws.”

Rep. Mark Pocan, D-Town of Vermont, agrees. He is an original co-sponsor of the PEACE Act, which was introduced on the fifth anniversary of the shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. The federal legislation is based on California’s innovative Act to Save Lives, which was signed into law last month by Gov. Gavin Newsom. The California law, which tightens standards for policing to establish that deadly force is legal only in instances where there are no other options, won overwhelming bipartisan support. Its sponsor, California state Rep. Shirley Weber, D-San Diego, says the measure “basically changes the culture of policing in California."

Newsom wants the change to go nationwide.

"As California goes, so goes the rest of the United States of America," he said at the bill signing. "And we are doing something today that stretches the boundaries of possibility and sends a message to people all across this country — that they can do more."

The federal government can do more. So can states from California to Wisconsin. And the old excuses of partisan division and ideological disagreement don’t cut it.

In Wisconsin, state Rep. Chris Taylor, D-Madison, has frequently reached out to Republicans and had some success in advancing criminal justice reform measures. Taylor has proposed legislation that would require a law enforcement agency’s use of force policy to incorporate that “the primary duty of law enforcement is to preserve the life of all individuals, that deadly force should be used as a last resort.” That’s a savvy standard that Taylor says can lead to “quantitative success in reducing officer injury, the use of force, and officer-involved deaths.”

It is time for her colleagues to join her in making Wisconsin a leader on these issues.

John Nichols is associate editor of The Capital Times. jnichols@madison.com and @NicholsUprising. 

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