Democrats take stage at South Carolina criminal justice reform forum


COLUMBIA, S.C. (Reuters) – Nine Democrats vying to be their party’s presidential candidate in 2020 will take part in a criminal justice forum in South Carolina this weekend, down from 10 after U.S. Senator Kamala Harris dropped out to protest an award given to President Donald Trump at the event on Friday.

FILE PHOTO: Senator Kamala Harris, Senator Bernie Sanders, former Vice President Joe Biden, Senator Elizabeth Warren and South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg wait onstage before the fourth Democratic U.S. 2020 presidential election debate at Otterbein University in Westerville, Ohio October 15, 2019. REUTERS/Aaron Josefcz/File Photo

The forum at the historically black Benedict College in Columbia is an important showcase for Democrats ahead of South Carolina’s Feb. 29 primary, the party’s fourth state nominating contest. Six in 10 Democratic voters in the state are black.

Sponsored by the 20/20 Bipartisan Justice Center, the forum is aimed at reforming the criminal justice system after Trump last year signed bipartisan legislation that instituted a number of changes, including easing harsh minimum sentences for nonviolent drug offenders.

Former Vice President Joe Biden, U.S. Senators Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, and six other Democratic contenders will present their own plans on Saturday and Sunday.

Trump hopes his support for a sweeping criminal justice reform law will help him pick up votes among African Americans next year after only winning 8% of the black vote in 2016.

“I hope you will judge my administration based on the tremendous amount we have achieved,” Trump said in his keynote speech on Friday. Trump easily won South Carolina, where Republicans outnumber Democrats 2-to-1, in 2016.

Harris, a former district attorney and state attorney general in California, canceled her appearance after Trump received the Bipartisan Justice Award when he made his speech.

She also expressed frustration that only 10 students from the school were given tickets to the event, with more than half of the 300 seats reserved for guests of his administration, a figure that was reported by McClatchy DC.In a statement issued by her campaign, Harris accused Trump of “decades of celebrating mass incarceration, pushing the death penalty for innocent Black Americans, rolling back police accountability measures and racist behavior that puts people’s lives at risk.”

“Donald Trump is a lawless President,” she said. “Not only does he circumvent the laws of our country and the principles of our Constitution, but there is nothing in his career that is about justice, for justice, or in celebration of justice.”

She said she would instead host students and the local community at a separate event in Columbia.

Many policymakers say the U.S. criminal justice system is harshly punitive, locks up too many people and is stacked against the poor and disadvantaged, as well as against African-Americans and Latinos. Some Democrats are proposing legalizing marijuana, ending the death penalty and eliminating sentencing disparities for offenses involving crack cocaine and powder cocaine, which have disproportionately affected black people.

Bolstered by the eight years he served as No. 2 to Barack Obama, the first black U.S. president, Biden has deep connections with black politicians and clergy. The state may end up being crucial for him as a last line of defense if he continues to lose ground to rivals in Iowa and New Hampshire.

Biden leads his closest rival in South Carolina, Warren, by nearly 20 percentage points, according to a RealClearPolitics average of recent polls. His rivals have been actively campaigning in the state and working to chip away at his apparent lead.

Reporting by Trevor Hunnicutt; Additional reporting by Steve Holland and Sharon Bernstein; Editing by Richard Chang and Sonya Hepinstall

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