During his presidential campaign, Joe Biden ran on a progressive criminal justice reform platform that stands in stark contrast to some of his previous positions on crime. In fact, his current plan aims to undo the damage caused by previous policies he championed for decades, starting in the 1990s.
The article will outline President-Elect Biden’s criminal justice plans now; will touch on Vice President-Elect Kamala Harris’ record on criminal justice issues; and will explain in layman’s terms what he can and can’t do as president without congressional support.
During this election cycle, Joe Biden stated that too many minorities are locked up and that we need to rethink who we send to jail, how we treat them in jail, and how to help them successfully rejoin society after they serve their time. On Biden’s Criminal Justice Policy website he promises, among other things, to:
In 1994, Joe Biden, who was then chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, authored and shepherded through a controversial crime bill called the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994. The Crime Bill imposed mandatory minimum sentences, imposed the three-strikes mandatory life sentences for repeat violent offenders, and increased the number of federal crimes that are subject to the death penalty. It also provided funding for the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act and a ban on certain semi-automatic weapons for 10 years. Over the years, Biden supported many more “tough on crime” laws that critics say helped lay the groundwork for mass incarceration, particularly among black communities. He has since admitted that he hasn’t always “gotten things right.”
Vice-President Elect Kamala Harris also has a mixed record on criminal justice issues. Harris was a former prosecutor, San Francisco District Attorney, and California Attorney General before becoming a US Senator for California. She has been walking the line between top cop and criminal justice reformer. For example, when she was the DA of San Francisco, she declined to pursue the death penalty, but as AG of California, she defended the use of the death penalty.
Changes at the federal government happen at a glacial pace. The president has the power to grant pardons – or set aside punishment – in federal cases. He can also grant clemency, thereby reducing sentences for federal crimes. He can also direct the Department of Justice himself – or through the Attorney General – on what offenses to prioritize and how often to allow diversion instead of prosecution.
The president can set up task forces to make recommendations on how to make changes under the existing legal framework. Biden has promised to create an independent Task Force on Prosecutorial Discretion, which would make recommendations for tackling discriminations that stem from arrests and charging decisions. (For example, in 2019, 52 percent of marijuana cases filed by the Tarrant County District Attorney were against individuals who are black, even though they make up only 15 percent of Tarrant County population – this despite the Brookings Institution, an American think tank, finding little variation in marijuana use between races.)
The President can direct the DOJ to look for violations of any police department or prosecutor’s office that violates the “rights, privileges, or immunities secured or protected by the Constitution or laws of the United States.”
Much of Biden’s plans for criminal justice reform are going to require legislative support. With the Senate majority still to be determined, it is difficult to predict how many of these campaign promises can be kept. It is also important to note that whatever changes are made at the federal level, the states still have the ability to make laws more stringent at the state level. For example, if marijuana is decriminalized at the federal level, it may remain illegal at the state level – subject to what each state legislature does. Some changes may also be mostly symbolic – for example, very few federal cases are for possession or even distribution of marijuana alone.
If Biden can build support in Congress, Congress can pass laws at the federal level that could eliminate mandatory minimum sentences in federal drug cases, provide greater avenues for early release, and put pressure on the states (by controlling federal funds) to enact state laws that conform with these stated criminal justice goals. The federal government cannot order state or local governments to fall in line with these goals.