3 takeaways from Elizabeth Warren’s criminal justice interview with Rachael Rollins

From safe injection sites to white privilege to violent offenders.

Elizabeth Warren sits down with Suffolk County District Attorney Rachael Rollins during a candidate criminal justice forum in Columbia, South Carolina.
Elizabeth Warren sits down with Suffolk County District Attorney Rachael Rollins during a candidate criminal justice forum in Columbia, South Carolina. –Screenshot via YouTube

Sen. Elizabeth Warren traveled down to South Carolina over the weekend for a criminal justice forum, but was met by a familiar face: Suffolk County District Attorney Rachael Rollins.

Rollins interviewed Warren at Benedict College — a historically black liberal arts college in Columbia — as part of this year’s Second Step Presidential Justice Forum, which hosted nine other Democratic presidential candidates, as well as President Donald Trump.

The Massachusetts senator used her time on stage to call for reforms to a criminal justice system that disproportionately affects people of color and systemically “criminalizes being poor.” Warren, who has released a comprehensive plan to address mass incarceration and public safety, also said it is time to invest in a system that recognizes the worth and potential of every individual.

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However, in her conversation with Rollins (who Warren endorsed last year), the Cambridge Democrat also answered on several of the more contentious criminal justice issues, both locally and nationally.

1. Warren sees promise of safe consumption sites

One of the first issues Rollins asked about was safe consumption sites, which the Boston-area prosecutor personally supports, despite opposition from Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker and the state’s U.S. attorney, Andrew Lelling. Warren suggested she was open to the idea, agreeing that the opioid crisis is a public health issue.

“I believe in data,” she said.

According to NPR, there are at least 100 such safe consumption or supervised injection sites around the world, mostly in Europe, Canada, and Australia. The sites provide people struggling with addiction a safer and cleaner place to use use heroin or other illegal drugs they obtained elsewhere and typically provide trained staff and clean needles. Researchers have found that the sites reduce overdoses and promote access to addiction treatment, though experts have remained cautious — and some are skeptical about their ultimately efficacy — as more American cities consider them in response to the opioid epidemic.

“This is about keeping people safe and getting more people, ultimately, into treatment,” Warren said Sunday.

Her criminal justice plan included a pledge to support “evidence-based safe injection sites and needle exchanges.” Warren also said she had visited an addiction center in Boston that was “close” to a safe consumption site and talked to the staffers there.

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“They talk about both saving lives, but also opening the door for people who say, ‘You know, maybe now’s the moment I could try. I could try rehab.’ I believe in that, and, in a Warren administration, we will follow the data on that,” she said.

2. ‘This is not your fault’

During the question-and-answer part of the session, Warren was asked by a Benedict student, who said he felt nervous, as a black person, whenever he saw a police car, what she would tell him to do if he were her son. The question gave the 70-year-old senator a moment’s pause.

“Can I start by saying you remind me again about white privilege,” she said.

Warren noted that she had to have “a lot of talks” while raising her now-adult children.

“But I never had to have one about what to do if you get pulled over by the police, because the risks are greater for you because of the color of your skin,” she said. “And I’m sorry that that’s the talk that you’re asking about.”

Data on traffic stops has found that people of color are disproportionately more likely to be stopped and searched while driving, despite no underlying evidence of increased rates of criminality compared to white people.

Given those disparities, Warren said she would begin the conversation by telling her theoretical son that  “this is not your fault, this is the fault of discrimination” and its lasting effects. Warren said the second part of the conversation would be to say “know your rights” and “know how to protect yourself.” The third part of the conversation would then be “help me change this,” she said.

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“Help us make a better criminal justice system, but more importantly help us make a better America, where this is no longer an issue and you do not have to have this talk with your children — and your children don’t have to have this talk with their children, and so on into the future,” Warren said. “Let us begin to end the need for this conversation.”

3. What about violent offenders?

Warren also fielded an audience question on another difficult question, even for more progressive criminal justice reformers: Violent offenders.

Experts on mass incarceration say it’s a myth that the majority of people in prison are nonviolent drug offenders, even though that’s where the bulk of criminal justice reforms have focused. Rather, prison statistics show that the majority of people in state prisons, which account for 90 percent of the prison population, are there for crimes categorized as violent offenses. Increasingly, progressive reformers argue that reform efforts will have to reckon with violent offenders to meaningfully address incarceration rates.

Lester Young, a community organizer who said he had been imprisoned for a violent offense, said Sunday that he was denied educational training and rehabilitation services during his time in jail because of his crime. Young asked what Warren would do when it comes to rehabilitating those convicted of violent crimes. She suggested that she had progressed on the subject.

“I learn,” Warren said. “I thought about this, and I kind of started out where everybody did — ‘Let’s talk about the nonviolent offenders’ — until I had reason to meet with some people who said they were classified as violent offenders, a particular problem when you’ve got high charging rates coming both on the federal side and on the state side.”

Warren said she found crimes classified as violent that she would have thought were nonviolent (in addition to things like murder, rape, and assault, violent crimes can also include certain property or weapon crimes, depending on local laws). Regardless, Warren said that “we need to change every part of the system for everyone,” beginning with rehabilitation services for those in prison.

“And when someone has paid their debt, I know what it means to pay your debt: You paid your debt,” she said. “That means you should have access to a driver’s license. It means you should have access to housing, so that you have a chance to be reintegrated into your community.”

Warren used the “basic thrust” of Young’s question to pivot back to the core emphasis of her criminal justice approach, emphasizing “the worth of every single human being.”

“I believe in the worth of all of us, “she said. “I believe we have to build a criminal justice system that is better for everyone who gets pulled into it and better for all of their families, and ultimately that means better for all of America.”

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